Can Contractors Bring America Back?

NOTE: This article originally appeared on

Eight reasons author Brad Humphrey believes the construction industry is the perfect place to resurrect the middle class and a great America

Think this title is too far fetched? Consider some thoughts from an article by James Surowiecki in The New Yorker magazine entitled “The Pay Is Too Damn Low.”

  • Fast food restaurants and department stores pay minimum wage because of low margins on the products and services they provide.
  • These same industries could get away with such pay in past years because many workers were teenagers and, per Surowiecki, “underemployed married women.”
  • Due to recent economic conditions, “main” breadwinners are actually filling many of these same jobs.

I think it is safe to say that most of us do not believe that America will prosper when the local hamburger franchise or low-cost department store chain employs a majority of this country’s workers. Therefore, is it possible that contractors, hiring construction workers, can bring back America? Can construction company owners and leaders bring back the ever-needed middle class?

Let me share a few thoughts why I think that contractors are exactly the right medicine for bringing back not only the middle class but our great country too!

First, few contractors pay their workers minimum wage? Why? Come on, that’s way too easy. Construction is hard work, conditions are often less than ideal, and even the most basic of laborers still needs to be able to read, count, learn and think to some extent.

It is not uncommon at all for construction workers to gross $35K to $60K in wages during the year. The more skilled construction workers can make every bit of the high end to this range and more — sometimes a lot more! Can you think of any better industry to help spark the revival of the middle class and the rebuilding of America than construction?

Second, what this country needs, in addition to jobs, is a resurgence of morale and motivation. I know few industries that have more self-motivated leaders than construction; that is, contractors and their leadership teams. Construction leaders are often, by nature, more optimistic and entrepreneur-like in their thinking and actions. For the most part, such leaders are learners and enjoy seeing others do well and succeed. Can you think of any better spirit for America to embrace today?

Third, the greatest percentage of contractors are “Red, White, and Blue” Americans. They understand hard work and deeply appreciate the opportunity that they’ve been given to create their own business and sell their services to those in need of dedicated workers to meet their construction needs. Sure there are a few “Carp” out there, but most contractors are “Thoroughbreds” and understand how to make money and how money works. Can you think of a better reason for America to begin prospering again?

Fourth, the greatest percentage of contractors are focused on employing the best available workers…regardless of age, sex or color! I’ve had the honor to consult with contractors in the Deep South, the Northeast, Northwest, the Southwest, the Midwest and the West Coast. Nowhere have I ever found a hint of a contractor who was prejudiced or had a hatred for people different than themselves. In fact, I found just the opposite: contractors who paid and recognized their workers for jobs well done no matter their color, age or sex. Can you think of a better attitude more Americans need to embrace today?

Fifth, no one works harder than the construction owner and leader. They are often the first in the office or on the jobsite each morning and the last to turn out the lights at night. Their work ethic is a testimony to how much they love their company, their employees and their industry. Sure they want to make money, but they also like to put people to work…and keep them working! Can you think of a better strategy for many of our politicians and government leaders to take?

Sixth, contractors recognize talent and what that talent is often worth and they are not afraid to pay for it. OK, contractors have budgets, but they will also do just about anything legal to hire talented people and pay them what they are worth. It truly makes contractors feel proud when they know that their workers are paid well enough to own a house, to pay for their kid’s college or to take a nice family vacation every year. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky thinking; it’s a reality for a lot of construction workers. Can you think of a better financial objective to get the middle class back again and stronger than ever?

Seventh, as most contractors know, the infrastructure of the United States is in horrible condition. Roads and bridges are at an all-time “low” in terms of risk to the driving public. Many schools, court houses, fire stations, etc., are also in great need of remodeling, if not a total new rebuild. (And don’t even get me started about the need for more housing for all economic levels of Americans.) There are so many projects that need to be funded and completed that there may not be enough contractors, and construction workers, to complete all of the work if it were all to come in at the same time. Can you think of a better way to truly stimulate the economy with “real shovel ready” projects?

Eighth, construction owners, leaders and workers are some of the brightest people in the country. While many construction leaders are college educated, that is not always a sign of a successful contractor and leader. Some of the most successful contractors in America do not have a college diploma and quite honestly, are smarter than a lot of people with a PhD! Contractors and their people are creative, think outside the box and are not afraid to take a risk. Construction people are creative and strategic problem solvers and can often figure a way around what the architects and engineers deemed impossible or didn’t have the “horse sense” experience to see. Can you think of a better group of people to place more trust for rebuilding the United States than the American worker?

Yes, there are a lot of reasons why I think contractors and their leaders can bring back the America that truly rewards hard work and big dreams! The dwindling “middle class” can once again be resuscitated and much of this can be achieved through the construction vision, planning and execution of contractors.

Just as the automotive, steel, rubber and paper industries may have created wealth in the United States in years past, so now may the construction industry lead this country back to prominence and financial stability. Far fetched? With the great personal drive and determination of so many construction owners and leaders poised to spring into action, I think it is very realistic and possible for our construction industry to bring America back to a country again known for its commitment to excellence, opportunities and achievement.

You and I are part of the greatest industry in the world. Breathe it in! Be proud of yourself and your workers. Let your people know how much you appreciate them by stopping by to tell them yourself this next week. Can you imagine what would happen in America if all owners and leaders did the same?


Strategic Tips…Keep Focused & Straight

In the 100-meter sprint, coaches regularly remind their runners to keep their eyes focused and maintain a straight path through the finish line.  The primary reasons for this includes the fact that when running, many runners tend to veer slightly one way or the other.  The bobbing of one’s head can slightly influence the leaning of the body, and the runner must work hard to keep his, or her, head steady, eyes focused on a point of reference.In the 100-meter sprint, coaches regularly remind their runners to keep their eyes focused and maintain a straight path through the finish line.  The primary reasons for this includes the fact that when running, many runners tend to veer slightly one way or the other.  The bobbing of one’s head can slightly influence the leaning of the body, and the runner must work hard to keep his, or her, head steady, eyes focused on a point of reference.

My suggestion for contractors and leaders might be stated similarly.  When your company is undergoing strategic planning, plotting out the next three to five years of growth and development, keeping focused and straight, will your strategic effort be on track and in the right lane!

But what should our strategic efforts be focused on?  Focus on WHAT?  Just as important is to stay straight as you proceed to work on strategic plans.  So, Straight to WHAT?  Well, let’s explore both questions briefly.

In setting your strategic direction, you first need to identify three to five “Strategic Objectives.”  Most often, your Strategic Objectives will address growth in market domination, improving our work processes, even moving to a more efficient software that will strengthen our finance to estimating to field accountability.  It is in each strategic choice that clear statements should be written.  Often, a team of leaders and workers are formed who will take a specific strategic objective and “flush it out,” putting a statement, create goals, and build action plans, all aimed at achieving the needed objective.

If you created a few strategic teams, it is important that they meet to collectively address the strategic objective.  Because such objectives are often created at special Strategic Retreats, added team members to a specific Strategic Objective Team, will need to be educated and updated on the objective.   

You will find it helpful, and important for the long-haul, if the team considers writing, or rewriting, the Strategic statement that was quickly developed during your strategic retreat.  The original statement may not need an entire rewrite, but chances are that the Strategic Objective Team may want to make the statement more clear and accurate.

There is not only one “right way” to enhance a strategic statement, but it should reflect the team’s consensus that it provides direction and clarity.  From the completed statement, don’t be afraid to add a few sub-points if it helps to clarify the statement.  Remember, it is the Strategic Objective, this statement, that will help to keep the Strategic Objective Team focused, bringing them back to the team’s “lane,” when they have veered slightly left or right.

Now, let’s take on the “Straight to WHAT?” consideration.  This may be a little more challenging.  It is in moving the team along that you will want to create some measurements for completion.  For example, let’s look at the following statement that was actually developed as a Strategic Objective. 

Create individual accountability to reduce rework & call-backs

At first glance, this might suggest that just a lowering of rework and call-backs is proof alone that the company has achieved this strategic objective.  Though no one would argue that a bona-fide reduction in rework and call-backs is very positive, does this single measurement alone confirm that our team was successful.  Well, yes and no.

Yes, if we did realize less rework and call-backs.  No, because this alone doesn’t prove that we have created individual accountability.  So, the team, in order to remain “straight,” will greatly strengthen their efforts if they can map out a few targets, or goals, that will collectively bring more confidence that their Strategic Objective has been addressed completely.
To continue using this example, let me add a few more thoughts that might be entertaining discussion for this example.  Thoughts such as:

  • How do we create more accountability in existing workers?
  • How can we “on-board” accountability in our newest and future workers?
  • What reduction in rework and call-backs will allow us to celebrate?
  • What current processes/systems need to be reviewed to determine their impact, good or bad, on our present rework and call-backs situation?
  • Finally, the presence of rework and call-backs itself provides a measurement (of poor workmanship); what other measurements might we consider that address the improvement efforts needed?

Now, in some cases, the pure discussion of the questions, like those above, might generate some new thinking that can go far in assisting the team to arrive at some new solutions.  And where some solutions may not change much, perhaps the new answers will come in the form of a measurement or slight re-alignment in a process.

It is in the “Straight to WHAT?” portion of your team’s movement that will require the most “heavy lifting.”  It is here, where attention to detail, challenging the status quo or tradition, and making bold recommendations, that your Strategic Objective Teams will find some needed discussions and decision-making.

Keep your Strategic Objective Teams focused on these two items and you will greatly reduce the amount of confusion and frustration.  As leaders, encourage the team to discuss further, looking in new and different areas, before committing too quickly to a solution or strategy.  Remember, we are not interested in finding another Band-Aid, but instead, to find the best possible solution to achieving your Strategic Objectives.

In growing your company today, you will benefit greatly from engaging more of your leaders and workers.  In fact, drawing on the brain power of your “Thoroughbred” employees can add much to taking your company higher and further.  Making your company the preferred contractor and employer, can be greatly enhanced by applying the two recommendations presented in this article.  

Good luck but more, work hard and keep it the two areas addressed in this writing.  Remember, your future success may depend greatly on these efforts.

Brad Humphrey, The Contractor’s Best Friend