Springfield, MO

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Opinion: The quiet construction labor gap: Leaders

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For generations, students were told they needed to go to college to have a successful career. The concept of learning a trade and working one’s way up in  the industry was considered by many to be less than desirable. While many industries had students pursuing degrees with an interest in leadership and management career pathways, many of the people entering the construction industry were focused on wanting to work outside with their hands. Construction workers were not always encouraging their children to follow in their steps, either.

Although times have changed and people recognize the value of on-the-job learning, apprenticeships and trade schools, this gap in leadership is an important hole to fill. Field positions require leaders both in the individual trades and on job sites. From foremen to superintendents, most leaders work their way through a trade into the leadership position. They understand the specific struggles and needs tradespeople face. They understand how to communicate effectively with people who were once their peers or hold a position like theirs.

The pathway
A construction site has any number of trades on the job at one time. Communication is critical between individual trades as well as with the owners. Without great leaders, safety hazards increase, quality decreases and timelines are not met. As more people retire from the industry, these leadership positions must be filled with the right types of people to maintain quality and efficiency for all projects.

However, tradespeople do not always want to move into leadership positions because they are “doers” in the industry.

The silver lining? Hard workers who possess leadership skills can progress more quickly through the career pathway into leadership positions. They begin to oversee, coordinate and build up people instead of doing the work they were previously doing. These skilled tradespeople can move into positions as foremen or superintendents. What’s the real difference between the two?

A foreman leads an area of a job site, often a specific trade. The foreman will generally report directly to the assistant superintendent or superintendent, depending on the size of the project. A foreman may be helping skilled workers, apprentices or other new employees learn the correct way to do things in the field, and they also help keep workers safe.

A superintendent coordinates the daily operations of all the trades from start to finish and coordinates visits from site inspectors. A superintendent will also join meetings with project managers, architects, engineers and owners to discuss the project’s progress.

Skills required
Other leadership roles can include estimators, safety managers and project managers. Although some companies require these positions to have a bachelor’s degree, others will trade years of experience on a job site for the degree.

Estimators coming from the field have knowledge that can assist them in developing bids for projects. Safety managers will conduct safety meetings with tradespeople, provide risk assessments and safety recommendations to management and owners, and ensure workers are following safety guidelines. The role requires communication skills to communicate with workers in an effective manner – even when sometimes workers resist their plans. Project managers handle risk management and oversee the administrative pieces. They’ll still visit job sites but more of their time is spent in an office. Project managers and superintendents work together to ensure timelines are met, inspections are coordinated and issues are resolved quickly.

Leaders are built from all walks of life. The construction industry has immense potential for workers to move into leadership positions quickly if they are willing to put in the effort and develop communication skills and have an interest in helping and mentoring others. From a tradesperson to a foreman and then a superintendent, the opportunities and need are right in front of us.

Megan Herzog is executive director of the Springfield Contractors Association, a member of the Salute to Design & Construction Council. She can be reached at


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