Changing Roles, Technology, and the Birth of the Super Foreman

How veteran workers are increasing their project value and helping to overcome the construction worker shortage.

One of the latest and most widely discussed hurdles for the industry involves a shortage of skilled workers. A recent Wall Street Journal finding reveals a study by two economists indicating that construction employment in 2016 is still about 1.3 million below its 2006-2007 peak. The Business Journals report that according to a 2015 survey of 1,386 companies, more than 80% of construction companies are having a hard time finding qualified workers.

The key takeaway in that last statistic may very well not lie in the numbers alone, but rather the attribute of “qualified.” While the growing deficiency of younger skilled trade workers continues to serve as a catalyst for rising industry costs and the decline in overall production, it is within the sector of experienced and qualified workers that the generational divide of the construction industry strikes the hardest. Of that sector, the traditional role of general foreman may be facing the biggest transition.

The Disappearance of the General Foreman

The role of a general foreman is a pivotal one among jobsite responsibilities. Expected to be equal parts experienced builder and task supervisor, general foremen are usually tasked by general contractors to oversee the physical execution of specialized projects and installations on site within specific teams and trades. “The old-school union contractor way of doing business is that they put everything in the hands of the general foremen and their foremen,” explains a construction manager from a leading firm. While that role makes sense, it may not be sustainable without a measure of adaptation, thanks to the current widening generational gap in the industry. “The general foremen now have only been foremen since ’03, and they’re awesome, but they only have 10 years in, over the course of two or three jobs. In the late ‘80s through the late ‘90s, general foremen were in their 50s and early 60s and had almost 30 years of being a foreman with 10 jobs under their belt.”

He adds, “There’s a different level of trust you can put in them that you just can’t right now with someone who’s three jobs in with only 8-10 years of experience. We’ve got a 20-year gap between the guys retiring in the next 10 years and the guys who are below age 40.”

The debate on the root causes of this void includes a variety of possible scenarios ranging from a lack of quality recruiting by decade to the market crash in the late ‘00s, contributing to a shift from the “company man” mentality of employee loyalty to the proposed belief that a life in construction may be less appealing to Millennials. No matter which root cause you choose to hang your hard hat on, the solution is not simple—but one emerging approach may provide some immediate relief that does not solely rely on recruiting younger employees.

Reverse Recruiting

A new wave of general contractor recruitment may actually be coming from the older workers and 20- to 30-year veterans in the field. Before you write off that theory, consider the U.S. Census Bureau’s National Quarterly Workforce Indicators (QWI) 2015Q1 findings, which show that construction workers in age group 45-54 are the only group to show an increase in hiring from 2001-2013, while workers in age groups 19-24, 25-34 and 35-44 all saw declines.

Many of these veteran tradespeople are being handpicked from union trades by general contractors to support the younger general foremen in a hybrid role of specialized superintendent/general foreman, bringing their applied build knowledge to specific build teams to overcome the declining lack of experience at the general foreman level. “We mix it up because our superintendents sometimes represent more of what an old-school contractor’s general foreman would do,” explains the aforementioned construction manager.

Even more surprising is the unlikely bridge connecting the generations and inspiring and empowering these veteran workers to create and enter these unique leadership roles: technology.

Technology as the Bridge

Not unlike professional sports, construction is a culture, and one that can be very hard to leave, even when the physical body begins breaking down and retirement beckons. Instead of walking off into the pension sunset or having to “waddle around and talk about all the stuff they used to build” (as someone in an industry forum mentioned) during the end of their field service, technology is reinvigorating veteran workers, acting as a conduit for their hard-earned build knowledge value and sparking an unanticipated surge in hiring.

Dave Rahe, LEED AP and BD+C Executive for Weitz Construction shares: “We recently hired a senior superintendent and as part of our interview process, our team met with him and showed him some of the things we do with Bluebeam Revu — how we use it on projects, and I think it ended up being a bit of a recruiting tool.” Gauging how receptive veteran employees are to technology, as well as learning from these candidates about the practical application of technology, helps ensure the future success of this approach for Weitz. “We were able to show him some of the innovative things that can help him in his job. It’s a creative way to address the age gap that exists, and having someone seasoned to ask the right questions about what tech means to the people in the field is a great resource.”

These veteran tradespeople are even taking the initiative to learn the technology by taking classes in order to better communicate with younger trade partners and project engineers. So far that approach is working. “I had a talented older carpenter who, for the two years he was on my site, learned Microsoft Excel, PowerPoint and Bluebeam on his own time so that by the time our job was over, I could make him an offer and put him on a job somewhere else in the country,” says one firm manager.

Ironworker veteran and recent Barton Malow Superintendent Romeo Rowe describes the growing technology ethos from the veteran’s perspective. “I see it like I’ve been doing this for over 30 years, so I had better learn how to apply what I know to the programs. Technology is here to stay, and I just have to catch up.” That openness to learning has been a huge asset to project managers and executives alike, as technological implementation and integrated project delivery continue to revolutionize the industry and these veteran trade workers step into leadership roles. “The truth in construction is, if you can get a senior superintendent to adopt a new technology, it is considered a technology win!” says Vince Sarrubi, CIO of Webcor Builders in an article on the future of construction.

A Winning Transition

The transition and creation of these “Super Foremen” may result in a win-win situation for all involved. Veteran workers can still contribute high project value in roles that reduce their physical stresses. They can pass the build knowledge they have amassed over the years to younger foremen and project engineers. And they can earn some extra money (maybe even on top of their pension) while having the option to finally walk away from the jobsite on their own terms.

Project managers can again trust that years of build knowledge are guiding project teams, and younger workers can share their ideas with, grow alongside, and learn from the people who truly know how to build projects from the ground up. After all, no matter how tech-savvy we may become, or how intricate our BIM and pre-construction planning processes become, the jobsite will always be where theory, methodology and technology meet the practical test. The jobsite will always be referred to as “the build environment” for a reason.

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