Meeting Today’s Challenge: Training Your Construction Crews

In order to stay competitive in today’s market, companies must invest in training and educating their workforce while establishing mechanisms to ensure knowledge and experience are transferred to new employees. This is a challenge all contractors face in today’s mobile workforce. Gone are the days when an employee stayed with a company for life. Recent statistics1 show that construction workers have among the highest employee turnover rates in any industry at approximately 25% per year. A report by the Construction Industry Institute2 reveals that an effective employee training program results in skilled workers who produce higher quality work, are more productive, and are likely to stay longer. There are several approaches to developing and implementing effective training programs that will meet specific employee and company objectives. This article presents a brief background on the value of investing in anemployee-training program and suggests steps to consider for developing a training program in your company.

We’re all in business to make money. Investing in an effective training program will improve your bottom line. How? By improving the quality of the work you produce and by retaining skilled employees. Quality of work will become more important as California follows the rest of the nation in a movement toward warrantyand performance-based specifications on public infrastructure projects. Costs for repairs on warranty projects can be substantial, as these contracts shift more risk to contractors, encouraging them to “get it right the first time.” Recent recommendations outlined in Chapter 4 of the California Performance Review3, a document written for the Schwarzenegger government, recommends that warranty and performance-based contracts become the norm for all State road-building projects.

An effective training program will help reduce employee turnover. It is estimated that employee turnover in the construction industry costs employers an average of $13,935 per employee.4 A survey done by the Construction Industry Institute (CII) reports that the second most effective employee retention initiatives in the construction industry are training and re-education programs. These programs are rated 71% somewhat effective and 14% highly effective. This ranks second to cross training. Also, of construction industry employers surveyed by CII, 80% reported that their training / re-education programs saved them money in employee turnover costs, while the remaining 20% reported that they broke even on their investment in training programs. Wages rank fourth in the survey.

First, step back, look at what you have, and decide where you want to be. This should include looking at your corporate objectives and looking at the direction of the construction industry as a whole. You might ask, “Where do we want to be five years from now?” An effective training program starts with a structured plan to meet specified goals by a certain date. “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might end up somewhere else.”5 Decide what specific areas of training you want to focus on and design a curriculum. Second,a financial investment is required. Training, whether done in-house or by outside consultants, requires money for salaries of trainers and trainees, course materials, and paid time for employees to undergo training. Finally, consider some lost production costs on projects where field training is being done. Costs associated with lost production can be minimal if training is integrated into the project throughcareful coordination of field operations.

Once a company is committed to implementing a training program, it must design an approach that includes a mix of different venues if it is to be truly effective. Generally, a mix of classroom and field training will meet your needs. Web-based training for construction workers is improving, however, the quality of online training remains limited. Using your training curriculum as a guide, determine what results will be tracked to ensure that training effectiveness can be measured. An example might be tracking improvement of the average percent compaction on asphalt-paving jobs from month-to-month and year-to-year. The more specific the measurement items are, the better understanding you will have of the effectiveness of training and how to improve it. Several methods have been proposed to assess training effectiveness, such as written tests for classroom training and field demonstration “audits” that evaluate individual operators on a rating scale 6 on specific tasks. The rating must be designed to be as objective as possible, to eliminate the “human factor” so that all workers are rated on the same basis.

The most effective training comes from workers asking questions and having the freedom to try new approaches. Encourage your workforce to ask questions. Provideanswers or direct them towards a solution by encouraging them to try out their ideas. A “thinking” worker is an innovative and efficient worker. Recognize accomplishments. Evaluate your crews on the basics. Consider having your crews evaluate themselves and ask them in what areas they would like additional training. One of the key elements of your success as a training manager is to support what you say through investment in training and equipment. The over-arching themes of any training program should be to ask questions and learn to do by doing. When people are given a “safe” environment where they can try their ideas, the results will stick with them forever and the training program will have achieved its objective. Although company culture will largely decide what method is used to ensure effective training, the next five sections suggest a general approach to structuring a successful training program.

  1. Maintain a record of Best Practices.7 Keep a record of Best Practices for your operation. Although some practices are “industry standard,” others will be specific to your operation depending on the type of equipment you use and other factors. A record of Best Practices enables employeesto focus on what works and provides employers with a guide for measuring improvement. Use Best Practices as a training tool for integrating new employees into your operation. The Best Practice for each task should be maintained as a “live document” that can be updated as new methods are learned. It is essential that there are mechanisms in place to insure that the entire crew is aware when changes occur.
  2. Let employees establish Best Practices for doing a particular task. The most successful training programs allow workers to decide the Best Practice for a specific job function. People come from many different company backgrounds and bring a wide variety of work experience with them. One of the best ways to share the experience of all employees is to have them collectively establish the Best Practice for a particular task. This is perhaps the most challenging aspect of training construction crews. Realize that across the board consensus will not always be possible because many workers are reluctant to change. To react this way is human nature, since a change from what you have been doing implies that you’ve been doing it “wrong” up to this point. “The most effective way to cope with change is to help create it.”8 In most situations where people resist change, they have not been given objective or quantitative feedback to make a fact-based decision on their technique. The only support they have in this situation is their intuition. For example, in compacting hot mix asphalt (HMA), a roller operator may have been trained that “pinching” a longitudinal joint from the cold side is the most effective way to make a durable, long-lasting joint. In fact, this is generally not the most effective method of HMA compaction, however, the operator was never given measured feedback (percent compaction numbers) as to the actual results of the method.It is important in training to make decisions based on measurable information. This is how the owner will evaluate your job. “Because I said so” or “That’s the way it is” are not credible statements. Ask yourself how you would react if someone answered your questions with those phrases.
  3. Use technology to provide immediate, quantitative feedback. When feasible, use technology to measure improvement and facilitate training. For example, if a paving crew is being trained to minimize thermal segregation in the asphalt mat behind the paver, consider providing each member of your paving crew with an infrared temperature gun to provide immediate feedback so that they can try new things to improve their process. Immediate feedback will give workers the opportunity to witness the results, make decisions, and update their Best Practice. Effective use of technology minimizes training costs and increases accountability by having employees “own” their training. Well-planned investments in technology for providing feedback will get employees more involved and quickly pay off in terms of training and quality workmanship.
  4. Foster a “safe” learning environment. Foster a “safe” environment where people are not penalized for suggesting new approaches or other ways of doing things. Allow workers the freedom to suggest changes and try new ideas on how to achieve quality objectives. Encourage people to ask questions and seek answers. People are more likely to believe what they see than what they hear. Of course, make sure employees are aware of the consequences of trying new things without the permission of a job supervisor. New construction methods can often be tested during a “slow time” when production conveniently allows for it and corrections can be made if necessary.
  5. Recognize mistakes as learning opportunities. We are human and make mistakes. Recognize mistakes and take advantage of them as learning opportunities. Often, the only way we know what does work is by knowing what does not work! Include this learning in your Best Practices.

When training programs fail to provide the desired improvement, it is most often a result of poor execution. General root causes for failure often include the following:9

Lack of technical or interpersonal skills
  • Not knowing how to do the job (technical training)
  • Knowing how to do the job, but not do it well (technical training and feedback)
  • Lacking team skills necessary to execute jobs that require collaborative efforts (people skills)
Lack of information (feedback)
  • Not knowing what they are supposed to do (lack of instruction)
  • Not knowing why they should do it (technical training, asking questions)
  • Not knowing how well they are doing a task (feedback, recognition)
  • Not knowing the proper approach (technical training)
  • Not knowing that the prescribed approach is better than one’s own approach (access and understanding of Best Practices)
Limitations beyond the control of the employee
  • Contradictory mandates from various levels of management
  • Lack of resources, inadequate equipment
  • Unskilled supervision / management / leadership
  • Task being impossible for anyone to do—unrealistic expectations
  • Personal problems
Consequences of employees’ actions
  • Poor execution gets positive or no negative consequence
  • People are punished for doing the right thing
  • No understanding of which actions cause which consequences—random consequences occur (positive and negative) unrelated to performance outcomes

Your company will realize many benefits from an effective training program. Some benefits such as improved compaction, smoothness, and production are easily quantifiable, whereas the benefits of improved business relationships, employee retention, and company reputation are not so easily measured. Improved product quality will provide financial bonuses on QA/QC projects and give you a competitive advantage on warranty work. The reputation of being a quality contractor has benefits not only in terms of gaining future business opportunities, but also creates the perception of a place where people want to work. This will help attractand retain qualified talent.

Managing a successful training program is as much an exercise in managing people as it is in providing technical training. Understanding what motivates people is essential in developing a training program. Combine your company objectives with individual employee’s needs and develop a specific training curriculum. Provide technical training, but also the tools and freedom to execute what is learned. Encourage process improvements that are based on facts. Keep records of Best Practices and continuously update the practices as new learning supports change. Maintain structure and send consistent messages to workers from all levels of management. A well-planned and properly focused training program will result in quality products and innovative solutions that will improve your bottom line and benefit the construction industry as a whole.

  1. U.S.Department of Labor,Bureau of Labor Statistics from September 2003 to September 2004.
  2. Construction Industry Institute report RS135-1, October 2000.
  3. The California Performance Review was created by Executive Order on Feb. 10, 2004. Mission is to examine State government and recommend changes to government agencies, programs and operations.
  4. Employment Policy Foundation tabulation of Bureau of Labor Statistics data from August 2003 to August 2004.
  5. Casey Stengel.
  6. Skinner Consulting Services has proposed a comprehensive training program that includes a rating scale from 1 to 10 on specific tasks. Low scores in an area require more training focus on that task.
  7. Best Practices is a term meaning the most successful, known procedure for executing a particular job function.
  8. I.W.Lynette
  9. Phil Berghausen