Most subcontractors will agree that labor is their greatest risk. Yet most subcontractors invest little time and money in developing a highly productive workforce. I believe it was Rita Mae Brown who said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” Many years ago my mentor, John Pinto, told me that, “Hiring is more important than anything else in this business.” When I say workforce I’m referring to trades people—the field people who supervise and perform the work on site. Developing a highly productive workforce may not be as difficult as one might think. Maybe your organization has already done so and is completely happy with the return on investment.

However, lenders have taken a different view of the contracting industry. Overall, subcontracting is a high-risk business that experiences extreme margin pressure, slower than normal collection rates, a reduction in retained earnings to finance losses, and, to top it off, a diminishing work force.

On a positive note, those who survive this current economic trend will be handsomely rewarded as the economy improves. Furthermore, those who are surviving never lost sight of the fact that field productivity is the key to success in good times and bad. The question is whether there’s room for improvement.



Competency hiring is basically hiring a person based on their skill level, know-how and experience. Purposeful hiring is hiring people for far more reasons than competency alone. For example, I learned that the first thing Southwest Airlines looks for in an applicant is the “fun” factor. This is because Southwest believes its employees should be fun people to be with. If an applicant doesn’t have the fun factor, the interview process stops. In other words, Southwest throws a monkey wrench into the hiring process because it wants highly qualified pilots who are also fun to be with. Hiring trends are changing and employers are demanding more than just competency.



Tim Rhoades, director of the Lighthouse Institute, developed a curriculum for construction workers called ABS. It addresses the importance of attitude, and how a person’s attitude impacts every part of their lives, behavior, skill level and beliefs toward safety. ABS was born to help those entering or already in the construction field be successful. In developing the ABS curriculum, Lighthouse asked construction employers to identify the most important character traits they want in an employee. The survey resulted in 28 key character traits construction employers want their field staff to possess.

These character traits are: respect, honesty, fairness, pride in work, self confidence, integrity, self discipline, positive, patience, asks questions, speaks up, helps others, learns from others, learns from mistakes, seeks help, accepts responsibility, focused on job, cares about others, knows strengths and weaknesses, aware of environment, works smart, limits risk, quality safe work/safe lifestyle, follows rules, takes on challenges, enjoys work, goes extra mile, and generates ideas.

These employers expect competency but again, they want much more. I’ve seen ABS being presented to large groups of apprentices and I have witnessed the positive emotional impact the program has on these young people. I saw total engagement, open body language, smiling and I saw tears—along with one or two individuals who just shut down. If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend that you attend ABS training or offer it to your field staff. In addition to teaching construction workers how important attitude is, Lighthouse has developed an ABS Hiring Model that employers can use to identify workers who have winning attitudes. For more information, contact Tim Rhoades at the Lighthouse Institute,

Mark Murphy, of Leadership IQ and author of the book “Hiring for Attitude,” performed exhaustive research on the role attitude plays in determining employee success and failure rates. Accordingly, and “contrary to popular belief, technical skills are not the primary reason why new hires fail; instead, poor interpersonal skills dominate the list, flaws which many of their managers admit were overlooked during the interview process. The study (reported in Fortune and Forbes magazines) found that 26 percent of new hires fail because they can’t accept feedback, 23 percent because they’re unable to understand and manage emotions, 17 percent because they lack the necessary motivation to excel, 15 percent because they have the wrong temperament for the job, and only 11 percent because they lack the necessary technical skills.”

If you add up the percentages, the research tells us that 81 percent failed as a result of attitudinal problems rather than competency problems.

I explained to Murphy that there are a large number of smaller subcontracting firms that may employ five to 10 full-time workers and asked how Hiring for Attitude applies to these smaller companies. His response was a bit scary: “The smaller the company, the greater the risk of one bad hire taking down the entire team and possibly the company itself.”

Can we ignore the research and go on our merry way or can we apply this information and improve our hiring practices or, for some companies, completely change hiring and training practices? I don’t think a company that’s in this business for the long term can ignore this information. Buy “Hiring for Attitude” by Murphy or go online,, for more information.



Some companies continue to use old methods, such as teaching competency, rather than the attitudinal qualities that result in success for employee and employer. Employers and I believe that organized labor members want more than competency—much more.

When will contractors and organized labor come together to identify the important character traits that result in a win-win for employers and employees? It’s a given that contractors expect competency but competency alone doesn’t get the job done. 

According to Mark Murphy, a simple, cost-effective approach that an organization can take is to identify your high and low performers’ character traits.

Think about the people that are an absolute pleasure to be around and who make your job more enjoyable and easier to do. These are the folks you would clone if you could because they bring such a high level of benefit to the organization. Now ask yourself: What are the distinguishing attitudinal characteristics that make these people such a joy to work with? Examples of your responses might include:

They take ownership of problems

They’re highly collaborative

They aren’t afraid to make mistakes

They meet commitments

They’re empathetic towards customers’ and colleagues’ needs

(Note: Your attitudes will be unique to your organization and should not exceed 10 items.)


The only way to ensure you’ve got a true high performer is to make certain that person doesn’t possess the low performer traits that impede success. Low performers and their negative attitudes suck the energy and enthusiasm out of everyone with whom they interact. Internally, they drag down valuable employees and make co-workers so frustrated and miserable they quit. And on the service side, customers and clients who come in contact with low performers tend to think twice before they bring their business back. With low-performing folks in mind, ask yourself: What are the attitudes these folks have that make getting stuck in traffic on the way to work seem like a blessing?

Examples of your responses might include:

They always find the negative

They gossip

They respond to feedback with an argument

They only do the bare minimum expected of them

They get overwhelmed by multiple demands and priorities

They always find someone else to blame for their mistakes

They’re unwilling to leave their comfort zone


Once again, your responses will be unique to your organization and should not exceed 10 items.

At this point you have a list of the attitudinal character traits of both high and low performers. You then have to ask, “How does this attitude add value or competitive advantage to my organization?” Organized labor should be asking a similar question: “Do the attitudinal behaviors of our membership add value or a competitive advantage to our organization?” Organized labor may or may not fully realize the precarious competitive situation it is in as non-union organizations gain market share.

Identifying key characteristics of high performers gives an organization a starting point in developing interview questions that will help determine if the applicant has the qualities desired. As well, HR managers can then create job descriptions that accurately define the attitudinal requirements of any position the company has open.

Likewise, employers and organized labor can work together to develop a set of key characteristics with the help of companies like The Lighthouse Institute or Leadership IQ in an effort to create curricula that will instill these qualities in its membership.



Developing a highly productive field and support service team isn’t done overnight. However, a decision to develop a high performer hiring plan can start today. Theodore Roosevelt said, “In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.” Finding workers who possess extraordinary interpersonal skills throws a monkey wrench into the normal hiring process. However, finding that foreman who can quickly develop a relationship with the client is paramount in a job well done.

For example, a subcontractor’s foreman or project superintendent who has the ability to develop a level of trust with the client and the all-important skill of persuasion in sequencing the work is a win-win for the subcontractor and the client as long as that foreman or superintendent has the “keeping his commitments” skill.

By contrast, a subcontractor’s foreman or superintendent who starts a job with an attitude of distrust will not develop a good relationship with the client, nor will there be positive, open communication. The more difficult the client, the more important the interpersonal skills become.

Trust, persuasion (the ability to communicate a case convincingly) and commitment are just three attitudinal skills that far outweigh a worker’s competency. Developing interview questions that identify the interpersonal skills that your company is looking for is actually pretty easy. The danger in creating this list of skills without a professional guide is the tendency to create a list of skills that seem important but in the end don’t give your company a competitive advantage.

Let’s say that being a highly organized neat freak is really important to you, and you’re the person doing the hiring. Being organized and committed to neatness aren’t really interpersonal skills, nor do these skills benefit the company overall or bestow a competitive advantage. Lastly, if your company has a culture driven by its mission or core values, the list of attitudinal skills should align with your mission/core values/culture.

Status quo ante means the way things were before: when employers made their hiring decisions based on competency, and organized labor based its training on competency. Soon, the standard for hiring will be based on attitude/character traits, while competency remains a given. As contractors move toward attitudinal hiring, will organized labor reinvent itself and combine character and competency in its training?  

 Remember: Teamwork begins with a fair contract. W&C