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Making the Most of Rain Delays and Plant Shutdowns


By Peter Krammer and Debbie Dickinson, Construction Executive

Be Strategic With Training for Lasting Results

Senior leaders must deliver unprecedented results in the face of significant obstacles: building or replacing aging infrastructure on tight budgets with crisis timelines while remaining publicly transparent and compliant in a demanding and competitive business climate. The recently released 2019 OSHA budget provides an increase of $6.1 million for 42 new Compliance Safety and Health Officers, an indication of this administration’s commitment to enforcement. This focus on worker safety makes it all the more important for construction leaders to effectively use project shutdowns for training. However, training only for compliance is short-sighted.

Compliance is clearly a compelling reason to train. However, if the mindset is only compliance-driven and not anchored in big-picture goals, the effort will produce fewer results. Training directly relevant to organizational goals that also improves the skills, safety and productivity of workers is more helpful. Use the next shutdown period to conduct a thorough assessment of the skills gaps in the workforce in the context of the projects on the books for the coming 12 months. In addition, key executives should take one overview course in crafts essential to their industry in order to develop a clearer sense of how to develop a strategic training plan and connect to workers.


Jen Washington, CEO of SmithPipe, just finished a meeting with the executive planning team at Intermountain Water (IW) and things are suddenly complicated. SmithPipe is a prime contractor for IW, by far their largest customer. For 20 years SmithPipe has managed IW’s sprawling and aging pipeline infrastructure. IW informed Jen that 50 percent of the pipe needs to be replaced over the next 10 years. SmithPipe currently replaces pipe at a rate far below that. IW’s pipe is quickly aging out, and they need a contractor who can perform at five times the current replacement rate to meet the goal.

Aside from the financial and logistical challenges of this project, IW’s primary operating area faces critical shortages of skilled crew members. New major manufacturing and distribution facilities opening in the next 36 months are paying well and attracting the best skilled workers. While SmithPipe has enjoyed a highly strategic relationship with IW, and has a “get-it-done” reputation, the IW executive planning team, as well as Jen, worry that SmithPipe cannot support this project. Consequently, the project, and possibly the entire relationship, are going out to bid.

New ways of working are going to be necessary for SmithPipe to retain their projects with IW, and new technology and new employees will be needed to fulfill in the 36-month timeframe. While having more time and more money solves some problems, “more” is often not an option. How will SmithPipe engage the current crews and onboard the new employees in time to save the relationship? The craftsmanship, dedicated work and energy of the crews are critical.


The SmithPipe people who must deliver according to schedule while keeping in budget need to know what is at stake and understand the executive perspective. Keeping them in the dark means the crews will be oblivious to the importance of their signature and the company’s brand with every weld, every frame built and every pipe laid.

In a situation such as SmithPipe faces, they would be advised to fill their PLATE—Plan, Learn, Assess, Train and Engage crews to the current goals. Using rain days and planned shutdown times to do training is great as long as the effort follows a strategic plan and is not limited to compliance only. Assess workers and identify gaps. Fill gaps with specific, meaningful training. Evaluate a worker’s knowledge base and write prescriptions for training needed for that specific person.


Project managers, craft supervisors and composite crew foremen understand the jobs at a highly detailed level. But they also need to understand the executive and strategic vision, relevant to the jobs they lead. The best companies develop clear plans and provide for success and profitability. Success should not depend on the inordinate efforts of a few individuals.

Numerous studies support this approach, but one is most revealing: According to a survey of 7,600 global executives, middle managers, supervisors and team leaders published by Harvard Business Review in 2015, two-thirds of respondents said they struggle to align managers with the business direction and then put the right people with the right skills into the job to get the work done. It is the No. 1 challenge—far more than such issues as innovation, global instability and revenue growth. The plan must remain clear and job-relevant to each craft. Take the necessary steps to make sure it does not lose clarity on the journey from corporate leaders, to on-site managers, to boots on the ground and back up the ladder.


Is it possible for Jen and the SmithPipe team to rise to the IW challenge? Of course. SmithPipe is known for bulldozing obstacles in the toughest of circumstances. However, they have an increasingly difficult time retaining skilled workers, especially with competition from perceived better jobs. After assessing its training program in terms of its business strategy, SmithPipe discovered that its management style conflicted with its plans to build stable, agile project teams. The organization responded enthusiastically. Within a month, several managers devised a process for ramping up pipe replacement. While IW’s project has gone to bid, Jen is confident that SmithPipe can win the contract and succeed.

As SmithPipe did, during the next break in the action, assess the organization using the following parameters, which contain simple-to-grasp management behaviors that form the basis of engagement. Engagement is the first step in needs assessment for planning, training and keeping the plans on track, time and budget. These statements allow contractors to assess their role in setting the conditions for engagement in their organization. Score honestly, as things are today, not as wishful thinking. A self-rating of three or below points to factors that may be preventing full management and crew engagement. Each statement also offers a guide on specific leader actions that can positively impact workforce engagement.

  • I understand what my managers and workers need or want to hear that will drive excitement about the future;
  • I can concisely describe the future in way that resonates with my managers and workers.
  • I know when and how to share this information;
  • I see evidence that managers and employees are engaged;
  • my managers and workers demonstrate understanding of the work I expect them to do (performance);
  • my managers and workers demonstrate understanding of how to get work done (behavior);
  • both performance goals and behavior expectations are built into formal performance reviews;
  • my managers and workers regularly and informally receive feedback on these expectations;
  • my managers and workers are promoted and rewarded based on a combination of performance goals and behavior expectations;
  • my managers and workers demonstrate trust and support of each other in their work;
  • through my actions, I actively work to show employees that I trust them;
  • I actively promote the expression of multiple perspectives;
  • my managers invite and integrate multiple perspectives from their supervisors and teams;
  • I understand the level of information needed to keep my managers in the loop;
  • I am rarely surprised by information reported by my managers;
  • my managers demonstrate that they can talk openly with me without perceived judgment, manipulation or indifference.;
  • I understand what makes my managers and employees feel valued;
  • I understand the options available to reward my managers and workers; and
  • I have the ability to employ a range of options when a valued employee announces they are leaving or expresses discontent.

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