Cross-Training Can Help Mitigate the Labor Shortage

It’s an unfortunate fact of life that shows no signs of diminishing soon. The construction industry continues to struggle with a shortage of skilled labor. Many contractors find themselves sorely limited in the size and number of projects they can take on because they simply don’t have the workforce to deploy.

One way to mitigate the problem is to make better use of the workers you already have on staff. Undertaking a carefully planned and patiently executed cross-training initiative might be a good way to do so.

Identify the invaluable

Who are your key employees? An impressive title and a hefty paycheck are two clues; these people generally are invaluable to your organization for strategic vision or the successful completion of jobs. Yet, a top exec or project manager (PM) isn’t the only one whose unanticipated absence can substantially impede your operations.

An employee with critical information or experience, if absent, may adversely affect your routine — and profits — right away. For example, what if a top estimator quits for a competitor or the only equipment operator who knows how to run a given asset fails to show up?

In recent years, as jobs and the technology supporting them have become more complex, a gradual movement from “generalist” to “specialist” has taken place. If a specialist leaves your construction company, no one may be able to do his or her work. The remedy? While you don’t want to create specialist clones, you can train your flexible generalists to perform specific duties.

Assess your organization

As you might imagine, the time to deal with the loss of a key employee isn’t the moment he or she turns up missing or departs for another employment opportunity. It’s when you’re at or near full staffing that you should:

  • Look at your operations,
  • Identify potential staffing or skills vulnerabilities, and
  • Develop a cross-training initiative that may close up some of these gaps.

One rule of thumb: The more critical the skill or function, the better off you’ll be if more than one person understands it.

Broaden responsibilities

Pay particular attention to the types of projects you typically perform and any new procedures you may have established. Do employees know how to cover for their co-workers — at least generally? If not, start cross-training now.

Then again, backup personnel who never get a chance to practice what you teach them will soon forget what they’ve learned. So, wherever possible, broaden staff members’ job responsibilities to create some healthy overlap.

For example, if your construction company handles its own payroll functions, try to rotate these tasks among two or more employees. That way more than one person will be capable of doing this critical job, which has a low tolerance for error.

In addition to ensuring a smooth workflow in the event of an unexpected absence, cross-training brings the scrutiny of a larger number of workers to each task. These extra eyes can improve efficiency — and discourage fraud.

Include your managers

You hire (or promote) managers to provide leadership, so the sudden loss of an employee who performs key functions is a prime opportunity for managers, whether those in the office or PMs, to demonstrate their “stuff.”

Although managers need not know how to perform every function of every employee, they should know at least how to keep operations running without hitches in the short term. Encourage supervisors to informally reverse-train within their departments. It will prepare them to fill in or train others in the event of an employee loss.

Beyond that, managers should know where to quickly find temporary help with the necessary tasks if needed. Have a reliable and legally compliant go-to temp labor source for both administrative and project-related tasks.

Boost flexibility

Providing cross-training for executives, PMs, tradespeople and even entry-level laborers can help you develop a more flexible, productive workforce. Doing so can also provide at least a little breathing room while you look for the skilled workers sought after by so many of today’s construction companies.

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