Superintendents are the “master sergeants” of the construction industry, the guys or gals at the front lines leading the construction of tall buildings, roads or other projects. They manage the work crews, coordinate the work of subcontractors, keep projects on schedule and within costs and insure a safe working environment. And, like the post office, they are there, every possible day, moving projects ahead.

Construction projects have a lot of moving parts, so superintendents, like football quarterbacks, need a keen sense of pattern recognition—the ability to coordinate people, machines, environmental conditions, and diverse organizations. A good superintendent is decisive, but not impulsive, has good empathy, is results oriented, is a pragmatic problem solver, and is a strong leader. And he/she must understand how to build things, how to put tops on bottoms in the right sequence. In other words, superintendents need to be strong leaders, know construction, and also be able to work well with subcontractors and owners of the buildings or roads being constructed.

Where do good superintendents come from? Although universities have developed good programs in Construction Management, many superintendents are graduates of the school of hard knocks; they have worked their way up from laborer, to foreman, to assistant superintendent to superintendent, a process that may have taken twenty years. Indeed, many construction executives think this is the only path. Construction Management university graduates may have the theory, but still lack the relevant on-the-ground experience. Is there a shortcut? Most people would say “No.”

Construction executives are now decrying the shortage of talent at all levels. (See http://www.virginiabusiness.com/news/article/getting-back-on-track.) Of the shortage, superintendents are among the most critical. To survive the great recession, many companies reduced staff, causing many of the laid-off workers to migrate to other career paths. Construction has long been a cyclical industry, but the last recession represented a particularly difficult cycle. Given this characteristic, how should construction companies think about superintendents, one of their most important skilled staff members?

Here are some ideas:

  1. Develop a long view of talent development. During growth times, develop a reserve fund to help retain critical skills during a downturn. (Oh, I know, profit margins are too thin even in good times to do this, but have you tried?)
  2. Develop a long term supply chain to build critical skills. That means working with high schools, vocational schools, community colleges and universities to encourage young people to go into construction and help them build the skills and knowledge required. Develop apprenticeships, internships, scholarships, and tuition assistance programs.
  3. Reach out to schools and community organizations to extol the merits of careers in construction. Let leaders know that construction can provide good careers to those with or without a college education. High schools are measured by the percentage of their graduates who go to college, and career counselors therefore, diminish opportunities outside of the college career track. Work with them to open their eyes to new opportunities.
  4. Develop internal programs to help employees develop their skills. Many companies in cyclical industries cut training in downturns and say they’re “too busy to train” in upturns. Training should be a counter-cyclical activity. Use downturns as a training opportunity.
  5. Work with key employees to develop an individual develop program, set goals, and execute the plan.
  6. Provide timely, honest feedback to employees.
  7. Keep tabs on what employees are thinking. Use internal Net Promoter Scores to measure engagement and feedback.
  8. Top executives and line executives should develop and implement the talent development strategy. Line executives should be accountable for the results, not HR.

The construction industry provides rewarding careers where a person can literally see the results of her/his work.