Why Does the Construction Industry Give Newcomers a Hard Time?
Consider how you got into the construction trade—most likely it was though a family member.
In a recent discussion with a friend, he shared that he was working for a low-wage job outside the construction industry when he got invited to try construction by his stepfather. He agreed and was put to work. He then recounted the story of his first months and it’s a familiar one. As the new kid on site, he was given the most demeaning of tasks and reminded of his low value. The task is understandable and he had no skill level. It is the verbal abuse that is all too common and disturbing. Virtually all new apprentices are treated in a similar fashion all over the United States. One predominant and common factor is true: the established crew is trying to get that kid to quit and walk away.
If you were to ask the crew why are they doing this, the reasons given would range from any of the following:
- Trying to toughen them up
- Need to see what they are made of
- Do not want to waste time with a quitter
- They had to endure this, so should they
- They have no value—what else should I do with them?
- Why should I train my replacement?
Keeping the Tradition Alive
The glue that binds all these reasons is tradition. The unspoken truth is the time-honored hazing tradition fails miserably for attracting and keeping good talent to our industry. The reason family members stay is peer-pressure. We always hear about peer pressure of friends making you do something but that pales in comparison to family pressures. Friends can make you do things, such as smoke, drink, gamble, stay out late or hang with the wrong crowd. That is not as powerful as the pressure your family can place on failure. They will never forget nor will they let you. Does anyone want to hear every Thanksgiving, “I knew you couldn’t make it”? This explains why apprentices brought in by family walk on fire to make it and others refuse to even start. Young people from construction families hear these stories and know this dysfunctional world is not for them. So they move to other careers.
For outsiders entering construction who are sharp, they quickly abandon the abuse and walk away. After all, who would put up with this abuse if they did not have to? For the family members who choose to endure this pain, they made the steps and must suffer the pain for a few months or the ridicule of the family for life.
This pattern repeats itself over and over. If we think about it today, the new generation is the most educated America has ever had. Why would they choose this path? The fact is they don’t. In essence, our culture keeps talent away. The current behavior pattern would make a psychologist’s head explode. I have spoken to a few and they simply do not believe my description is universal. They feel it must be limited to only my personal experiences. I believe it is universal.
Remember the Golden Rule
You might think the union work market is different, more civilized—you would be wrong. It may actually even be worse. This environment is the prominent excuse of reason number four. The union world is about climbing a ladder, paying one’s dues and proving you are one of them. So you must keep up the tradition.
In the world of non-union piece work, the strong motivation to push out a new apprentice is number six on the list. Piece workers fight to make a living; they fight for the work of faster production to make more money. They routinely put new apprentices on impossible areas and provide no mentorship. If you think professional football works on getting the best, you are right, but it is not the same environment. Football has coaches observing every move and evaluating the talent of each player all the time.
If football was like construction, we would send out five quarterbacks to another field, let them work and compete and then report back as a group with no oversight. The players would organize, train and evaluate themselves. With no coaches overseeing the process, the owners must believe the most convincing bullies.
If we have any hope for the future of construction to improve, the culture and process has to change. I would love to hear your apprentice stories of the first days on the job.