The white paper, “Restoring the Dignity of Work: Transforming the U.S. Workforce Development System into a World Leader,” opens with this assessment.

“Even with dramatic increases in infrastructure funding and stronger development of innovations, we as a nation no longer have the skilled construction workforce necessary to build the physical and technical infrastructure required for future generations. Over the past three decades, we have seen a shortage of skilled construction craft professionals emerge. The skills shortage has worsened to the point that it is not only hard to find qualified craft professionals, but the shortage is affecting projects’ schedules, costs and safety.”

This begs the question: Why are people not entering the trades? There are three factors to consider:

  1. A college degree is almost universally set up as the most desirable career path for students.
  2. The process of propping up a college degree as the best and only way to achieve professional success has resulted in a national shame towards work in the skilled trades as an undesirable career choice.
  3. Dignity has been taken away from the job. Workers are treated as robots instead of individuals with ingenuity who should be engaged in the process of work.

This is where we are today, and we have to face the challenges head on. When you consider the time it takes for an individual to be fully trained as a construction and craft professional (eight to 12 years, depending on the occupation), and the attrition rate (four out of every five people who enter the trades drop out), it becomes clear that we should have begun addressing the challenge long ago.

There are fundamental changes that need to take place in the way skilled trades are presented as a career choice, but there are also steps that companies can take right now to ensure they are attracting and retaining workers and contributing to their success.

Set Up A Positive Work Environment

Take an honest assessment of the work experience for your team? Are you contributing to the perception that work in the skilled trades is undesirable?

It starts with the basics. The small things communicate to your workforce that you value them.

Are your turnstiles efficient, or do workers have to spend 45 minutes waiting to get through? Are the facilities dirty, or are they regularly cleaned? Do you provide a place for workers to wash their hands and to sit down to eat lunch? The old adage that actions speak louder than words applies.

You also need to consider your systems. Too often, companies treat their workers like they are just there to clock in and do a task and then clock out and go home. Building a strong worker-centered culture means creating a system where workers can contribute, where they feel like they are connected and they belong, and where they feel safe to speak up. Are you sharing information with your workers, like goals and milestones, or do you hide it? Do you make time for them to meet and contribute, or do you simply tell them what to do?

People are reciprocal. If they feel like you don’t care, they won’t care. But the converse is also true. If demonstrate you care through your actions, they will be involved and connected.

Make Training a Part of Your Culture

The foreman does not have time to train everyone, and without a structured system for training, new workers will get disjointed and inconsistent training at best.

Training must be integrated into the responsibilities of the team.

  • The team environment must be supportive and create a sense of belonging.
  • Teams have to have a clear plan for the day where tasks can be delineated and opportunities for training can be specified.
  • Then, as a team, it is time to ensure workers get the quality on-the-job training they need to succeed.

The group needs to be aware that supporting each other and helping each other grow is an expectation of the job, and there needs to be a process to help them do that.

Develop Mentors

New or inexperienced workers should be assigned to an experienced mentor. The mentor is responsible for providing training for the new employee and providing a safe place for the worker to ask questions without judgement or embarrassment.

Create a learning progression. Consider all of the tasks a worker needs to know, and then organize the list so the easiest tasks are first. This allows the mentor and worker to know what skills have been mastered and what skills need to be trained. The mentor can direct the new worker in deliberate practice for tasks where he or she needs additional training and provide positive reinforcement for skills that have been learned, which helps build the self-esteem of the worker as they track their learning and development.

Utilize Job Aids

The brain can only remember seven things at a time, plus or minus two. When training on the job, workers cannot retain everything they hear from one day to the next.

I watched a worker on a drilling rig show a new guy how to tie a bowline, a half hitch, and a square knot – the three knots you need to know right away. He let the new guy practice right in front of him until he could tie all three knots. But, by the next morning, the new worker could not remember how to tie any of the knots. He had not developed the muscle memory, and he did not have a reference to help him remember.

This is where job aids can be useful. Job aids are a place for workers to keep technical references and to write down notes that are important as they learn to perform their job at a high level. They can also include references that reduce errors and save time. For example, if your workers have to frequently record a weight in pounds but the information is typically in tons, provide them with a reference sheet so they do not have to do the calculations each and every time.

Researchers have shown that the act of taking notes helps the brain process information. When workers are directed to take notes when given instructions, it helps them to retain their training.

Foster Individual Awareness and Development

Have you ever had a new worker on the job who was a little overconfident? It can be dangerous. You can have a worker try to perform a task they have no business doing.

There is an explanation for why this happens. In 1999, J. Kruger and D. Dunning published research entitled, “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.” People who are unconsciously incompetent at a task overestimate their ability, perform poorly, and then lack the awareness to recognize their incompetence.

There is a simple way to bring new workers into a state where they are consciously incompetent and receptive to training and instruction. Put together a test of worksite-specific competencies for every new employee. The results of the test provide a subjective way to help the worker recognize his or her own incompetence without the safety risks and the shots to self-esteem that can come with making errors on the job.


Schedule a call and let us show you how our digital transformation technology can capture 100% employee input, provide overnight feedback, and transform the information into worker-driven intelligence and value creation that you can leverage.