Brad Humphrey has come to be known as the Contractor’s Best Friend and hosts his podcast in conjunction with Caterpillar.
What the contractor's best friend has to say about training
With brad humphrey
Not only is Brad an expert who shares his knowledge on his podcast but he is also actively involved in building training programs leveraged all across the country.
Brad joins us today to share his knowledge and experience in the industry. Specifically, we’re talking about the important role that training plays in building a great team. He shares some of the practical ways he has leveraged training in the field and in the office -- and how to make the most of an employee’s first 90 days on the job.
Tune in, or read the transcript below to learn more about the importance of training new employees and a few pro tips from the Contractor’s Best Friend (transcript edited for length and clarity).
You host your own podcast in conjunction with For Construction Pros and Caterpillar. Can you tell us how it started?
Brad: I had nothing to do with it. We actually have a co-publisher with that podcast. It's AC Business Media and they do a lot. They used to actually take part in owning some of the construction shows, But they sold all those off and they kept their magazine – that type of thing.
The lady there that is the head of all of that. She was very close with the Caterpillar people. They were looking to do something PR wise, and she suggested that I might get involved because of my reputation in the industry and Caterpillar fell for it and it's been a great relationship for the last five years.
It’s really been fun.
After listening to the show, it's clear there's a couple of different things that are close to your heart. One of the things we’d like to learn more about is your approach to training, because it's a common challenge.
Have you had examples or good experiences with training in your personal or professional life? Do you have suggestions for people who want to work on training their employees?
Brad: Well, that's a complicated question because you're dealing with human beings, and human beings are kind of complicated. The construction industry has always been an industry of doers, and if you actually look up the definition of construction, it just simply means installing materials.
So it's not always been a very theoretical or strategic industry. It's a very tactical industry. You go out, you dig dirt, you replace it, you reclaim asphalt, you put up sidewalks, and that type of thing. And if you looked at the numbers as I did about fifteen or twenty years ago, you began to see the national statistics showing that we're getting older as a country and this really impacts construction.
So we see these national numbers that are overwhelmingly scary. We know how many people are going to retire. I’m at the very tail end of the baby boomers, at sixty three. And I think baby boomers, maybe they include a year or two older than me or younger than I am, and most of us are retiring.
But what scares me are the people who are in their late forties, and sometimes even the mid fifties, who have made so much money in construction that they've thought about retiring early and that's really what I call the X factor. I say all that to say, we're not replacing them with people that have the same level of expertise and craftsmanship. And the contractors know that.
I've been sending that message for several years– like fifteen to twenty years that I remember clearly preaching at sessions and workshops and association meetings around the country and with private customers that I had. But we've got to train this next generation. We gotta train. We gotta train. We gotta train.
While we are saying that, at the same time, most of your public schools are getting rid of technical training classes or the old shop classes they used to call it. We see a resurgence of that a bit. A lot of the high schools have what they call CTE now. Career Technical Education. In fact, I’m on a couple of advisory boards here in Texas for some big school districts, but the point is that I saw the need there. We're not replacing the people. The young people who are coming into the industry have very few mechanical skills.
My trick question turned out to be a trick question. When I was interviewing for my own business years ago, we did concrete and asphalt. I remember asking one young man that came in and applied and I said, do you even know what concrete is? He says, that's the black stuff, right? No, it's not. And so yeah, we don't even have that.
So a lot of times you know, I'm encouraging people that if you don't start now we have to use some of the workers that we do have, especially our leaders, like our foreman and relief men. The problem we have there is that in this industry you know, part of it is a culture where if you’re a foreman and you get a brand new employee that has no education or training in construction, and they almost feel it's an anchor around their crew’s productivity.
And a lot of these guys are paid an incentive on improvements or quality results. So they actually see it as a negative. But we've got to continue to persevere through that. What I've done is try to develop tools.
We have several tools that we've developed over the last two years at the company I'm working with right now on just trying to help these foreman and give them every benefit and tool we can give them that will help them see the benefit to, training, including not penalizing them for their hours worked with a new employee. And this is really hard.
But the bottom line is that if we don't take on some of this internal training as contractors, I just don't know if we're going to find enough trained people around to come into the workforce because we are definitely diminishing the numbers in that area.
That transfer of knowledge is always a challenge. How do we make sure that people coming into the industry are able to extract some of the valuable information that's been built over the last few decades by their predecessors?
Also, there are sometimes negative connotations around careers in construction. But there are actually a lot of opportunities in this industry for training and advancement and a successful career. How have you seen other companies in the industry adopt good practices for conveying this?
Brad: Well, I think that's a great question, too. I wrote a book that's actually on Amazon and it's called The Seven Steps To To Employe Retention. One of the chapters, and it’s a very short book and it was actually a composite of seven articles that I wrote for another organization. They thought that the series was so good that we turned it into a small little handbook for people and they can download it from Amazon.
But one of the chapters is called The 90-Day Plan. And I really think it's imperative we use the 90-day plan. The old unions, years ago, had a 90-day probationary time. Most contractors are aware of that, and while most contractors are not necessarily unionized, we still sort of use that. I think it's a good number of days to give a new employee an opportunity to really check out to see if they like who they're working for. And it gives the employer a chance to really inspect and monitor the new employee.
Do they have the potential to move on? Because obviously you're not going to know everything in 90 days, but in that 90-day plan, the reason I share that with you, is that we've tuned it up really nicely now. But I actually lay out for a laborer, twelve weeks in a row of the types of things that you could present on a weekly basis, that is tied to follow-up. There's a pop quiz at the end of each week. When I say pop quiz, don't think of that as a test. It's five, like really easy questions and the first week one of the questions might be. Where is Johnny On the Spot at the job site, kind of a thing.
So the point is that what you're trying to do is engage. I turn that into a small little booklet for the company I’m working with. We personalize that and we actually give that now to a new worker and it's not kept by the firm and actually the accountability is on the employee.
One of the things that we have found if you look at a lot of your statistics of why people have left, they leave because they're not being talked to. They're not included and they don't feel like they're included on the team and they're not learning and no one's training them. And so one of the things that I try to do is learn from that to say – okay well, first of all, we need to increase our communication with new employees. Second, we need to start training almost on day one if we can. And again a lot of this training is on the job. They're still mostly on the job, training and doing construction. I don't think there's any doubt about that, but you can teach people.
In fact, I'm leading a boot camp for our own company. About 85 foremen are coming into Dallas, Texas for a weekend in January, and the whole theme of that weekend is on training, and half the guys aren't going to like it, and half the guys are not necessarily going to love it, but they're going to recognize that they need to do this. They're going to lose their workers, so this is really an interesting time, but I do try to teach 'em, so we have the 90-day plan.
Another thing that I've developed is a small little, actually, a little kind of a report card. It’s ten very simple questions that can rank one to five on how well they performed. The foreman would do it at the end of the week on a new employee. And then there's two questions basically talking about that that they can put in. What do you need to work on this week from? Based on what we saw you do this week. Here's what you can work on next week. Then they will give that to that employee. Take a picture of it, and then give that copy to the new worker.
Again, one of the reasons behind that is this: most employees want to know how they're doing. What does the boss think of how they're doing? Well okay, let's meet that need. I’ll tell you this, Elizabeth, because what we're trying, any employee can do this. Any contractor can do what I just said. But the point is most of them won't take the time to do that, and if they did, they're probably still going to have some turnover, but I think you're gonna reach people who really have destiny, and have the potential not only to work in the industry but work for your company. And to me, that changes the culture.
What you're doing is you're sending a very clear message. We’re not only going to give you a chance to make it, we're gonna actually help you, and we've got a plan for you. I've always told contractors, think about this, remember your first day on a new job, and and a lot of times I challenge these foremen to go back to the very first time you've stepped onto a construction site as a brand new employee. You didn't know anything, and how did you learn? Who trains you?
The idea here is that we've got to remind these leaders that when they bring a new employee on, that new employee has got all kinds of sensitivity going out. They're overly sensitive to everything around them. The way a guy looks at the way they talk to 'em, those kinds of things are very very limited. On the technical side, it's all emotional and psychological, and so anything we can do to improve the first few days.
I've actually laid out for a foreman what they can do on day one. What they can do in the first week. What they can do in the first month, what they can do in the first quarter of the year with 90 days, and then what they can do in the first year? And the idea here is that because when people quit, they always, most of the time, tell interviewers that they quit because of their boss, not the company. Many times it's the boss. And so who are the bosses of our young construction workers coming in? It's supervisors. It's superintendents, whatever the nomenclature is at the company.
I don't know if “winning the war” is the right way to define this, but I don't think we're gonna be successful if we just depend on hiring people who are already trained. We're always going to see a little pirating what I call pirating or approaching from other companies, but I've never been in favor of companies going after employees at another contract. Those things always come back to haunt you.
Yeah, it's a very small world and it is definitely an employees' market. So you know they will turn and leave for fifty cents more an hour and they're gone. So you better have more than just the dollars. But you said something earlier, which I think is very appropriate. The money made in construction is much more than most people know. A lot of your laborers come in at fourteen, fifteen bucks an hour.
Most employers will tell you they try to get raises as quickly as possible, because they know if they don't pay more, they're not going to keep them long term. You know, we've got a foreman, and I've seen foremen who are making six figures on a regular basis, and some of these folks didn't graduate from high school. So you've got an incredible opportunity, money wise.
When people tell me, well, you can't make much money in construction, I just laugh.
Because I'm telling you, I know a lot of college degree people with social degrees, social service degrees, and they're not making thirty five thousand a year and they've got student loan debt on top of that, I know exactly. So I think we're onto something if we do that.
One more thing that's interesting, I got on the board in Texas. It’s an organization called Skills USA. And most people in construction have heard of that. Mike Rowe, the Dirty Jobs guy, which is a funny guy to watch. A lot of people know who he is. He's kind of supported it at the national level. But it's a great competitive organization that brings young people, and not sometimes always too young who can come and actually can compete in different skills.
There's over a hundred skill areas and it's not all construction. It could be cosmetology, could be learning to be an EMS. You know all these kind of different beautiful skills and I think that's wonderful. That’s why I’m involved.
When I see organizations like that and that's why when I got asked to serve on the Texas board, I was really excited because I'm working with the post secondary level. I'm working with the technical schools and the colleges because these young people are ready to go to work. I mean they're not like high school, or they may want to go to college for two years and get an AA, a junior college degree or technical degree. But the point in the matter is if we don't support those kinds of efforts, we really are going to be in a hard, hard place.
A lot of the young people coming into the industry may not have the traditional skill set that a construction company would look for, but they might be tech savvy.
What does the intersection of mechanical knowledge and the technical side of training look like, both for new employees and those coming in? Younger employees might not know how to operate a specific piece of equipment or machinery, or they might not know where to be on a construction site, but should employers be looking for employees with technical skills, even if it’s not in construction?
Brad: That's a great question. You've really teed me up nicely with that one. I could preach for days on that. I won't, to save you a lot of agony. One of the things that you said earlier. I think we need to address what this is called. In training you hear the term competency. I introduced this word to contractors and owners and leaders at major conferences and I've written about it a lot. I've been very fortunate. I've had over five hundred articles published in a bunch of books. And so it just makes me well versed on a lot of stuff.
That doesn’t mean I'm an expert on everything. But I do know that competency is a word that involves both a sort of technical as well as non-technical skill development. And you're absolutely right. If I were to give a first recommendation to a contractor on what to do with the brand new worker to begin with – if anything, else, teach 'em technical training as soon as possible. That can start in the first week.
In fact, I'm trying to get the organization I'm working with, I'm trying to get us to back off and say, wait a minute. The first two days don't put the new worker out in the field. Let's keep them in the yard and teach them the tools. Let's teach them what the equipment looks like, the purposes of these things, then when you send them out to the job with the foreman, who may not want them anyway, because he's brand new, now at least he knows the difference between a hammer and a screwdriver.
I mean, we've got young people that don't know how to use a tape measure. I mean they don't know how to add twelve inches to fifteen inches, or what a square foot is anyway? I mean, these are the basics of construction. So if we could do that even in the first couple of days, even if they don't get it completely, they're at least familiar with it.
And so I think it's very important that we start there. You have to start training technically. Now how do you train and how much do you train technically in a day's time? That's where my ninety day plan comes in. Because let’s say a contract construction concrete worker needs to learn how to just form up concrete.
You're not going to teach a brand new employee how to finish concrete in the first week. Not in most cases. So I'm probably gonna teach them what the tools are. I’m gonna try to teach them how to form up concrete and then let him do some of that well. That's gonna require him to use a hammer. That's got to require him to to position the pieces of wood in the right way. It's going to require him to learn how to drive a nail.
So if you just taught that skill for the first couple of weeks now he could be doing other things throughout the day. Picking up trash, that kind of thing. But the point is that we have to start somewhere, and a lot of times this is where the patience of the contractor is. When I say contractor, I really mean the leaders out there teaching the new employee – probably the foreman or lead men.
The really good ones have always realized that most young people, new people to the workforce, aren't going to get things in the first week. Their mind's dizzy. But if you stay with the very basics, get him because here's the deal when an employee feels comfortable and confident that they are now doing something that's contributing to the crew's productivity – their attitudes go up.
Statistically, we know that's true, so that's why I've always said, don't think that a three day old new employee is going to learn how to finish concrete. Or it could be anything electrical – running electrical lines. It could be you know, putting carpet down, whatever your trade is, but the point is that most contractors if they would just stop for a moment and break out what they do, break that into some smaller pieces and then put a sign a timeline to that they might be surprised how much – number one: further along the new employee would get. And number two: they'd have a much better measurement of how to re review that new employee. Are they the type of person who can work for us? And number three: you're giving that new employee a lot more reasons to be excited about coming back to work the next day.
Absolutely – and it’s interesting because so many of these businesses are family-owned and they have an “extended family” sort of feeling. Owners are involved. But unless you actually ingrain that in your culture and you have everybody on the team thinking that way, it's not going to happen.
And some of the ways that you can make it happen are exactly what you're talking about – training programs.
if you can overcome those initial challenges, if you can get somebody into what you're doing and you are able to show them early that the company will take care of them in whatever way that means, you can develop those relationships.
If your whole crew is people that have been doing it for 10-15 years, it's hard to remember what that experience was like. If you get a few new employees at the same time, how can you build ways for them to support each other?
Brad: Yeah, and I think it's important when you bring on a new employee. I didn't use this, but I mean it's part of the way that I teach hiring and recruiting and hiring and retention. Put them with a buddy. I don't care what you call the buddy system or a mentoring system, and it doesn't have to be a leader. It could be a coworker.
And again you said something also that is very, very valuable. Even if that employee doesn't make it, the other employees recognize that the company is making a good effort at trying to help people. I've also found that when you get that employee that's new, and let's say they've come to pick up how to form concrete, or it doesn't matter what the trade is, and they've actually gotten fairly good at it. And then you hire another employee behind them a few weeks later, a few months later, maybe let the new employee do the training on that even newer boy.
There's a couple of things, you know a lot of times and I found this to be true too, you don't learn nearly as much until you have to train something. Teach something and teachers, whether it's in academics or whether it's the trainers in the construction field or any industry. They'll always tell you the people are actually doing the training. They almost seem to learn the most because they have to learn how to prepare and how to instill.
There's also something, another little tool. It’s not a paper tool, but I introduced it to the world of concrete, probably twenty five years ago in my field planning classes, and it was called the crew huddle. And I had played football in college, so the football huddle is something most people can visualize pretty quickly. So I developed an AM crew huddle and a PM crew huddle.
We actually have a little card that has an agenda for the AM huddle on one side, a PM agenda on the other side. And the AM huddle is a chance – you said something earlier, you want people to feel like we have a family here, and that type of thing. Well, it's amazing to me we say we want teamwork or we want a family atmosphere, but then we never bring people together.
So one of the things that helps make a good team is to bring people together. You win together. You sometimes lose together. And so the huddles were just a chance for you to get to the job site before everybody breaks and goes to work. We have a one to two minute meeting, maybe maybe thirty seconds some days, because we've been doing the same thing for thirty days on the job site.
We always give an update. I always ask everybody how they’re doing. We remind people of any safety issues. We remind them of what happened before. It's a good chance to meet folks, you can say – Elizabeth is with us. It's her second day. She’s still learning – make sure you look out to give her some advice. That kind of stuff.
Anything like that first thing in the morning gives a chance for everybody to kind of get with each other and feel like they're going to be a team because most of the time you're spread out on a job site, people are doing different tasks. And then I always believe you'd need to bring them together at the end of the day before you let them go home. That's your chance for really just doing a quick debrief.
I’ve always said that the morning huddle sets up the day, but the money is made on the PM huddle, 'cause you can have a daily debrief. What did we do? What could we have done better? What do we need tomorrow? Who's going to be here tomorrow? That kind of thing.
I think it's very valuable that you're building the family culture which most contractors want. They want that type of thing. They may not articulate it that way, but they do want that, but then they don't do anything to support that and so yeah, you can have lunch out. You know we used to take everyone out and grill once in a while on a job site. We'll have something ready for this last summer.
On some hot days, I got my ice chest and put in watermelon and went out to job sites to cut pieces of watermelon. The guys went crazy.They loved it. Yeah, and so those are the kind of things that I think you can add throughout the course of a year that can really impact the psychology of this whole thing.
We have a couple of questions that we are asking all of our guests this season – rapid fire questions…
What do you think is the biggest challenge the industry is facing right now?
Brad: Well right now, I think it's COVID. I just sat through a workshop last Friday on the legalities of the mandates that have been placed on us through OSHA. They are being challenged. There will be challenges in the court. OSHA’s backed off a little bit until this gets done. I know in the state of Texas, we're underneath the same court district as Louisiana. Mississippi, and so we've got a stay until January.
So on a real, very realistic standpoint, I think COVID is going to be an interesting deal because this is an industry again of pretty hardcore frontier like mentality. People in construction think “we're stronger than everybody.” And so there's going to be some resistance. There's going to be a lot of resistance to that. If we are mandated to, I do think that's a serious issue that is sort of out of our hands.
But let's set that aside, and related to what we're talking about I do think it's the whole issue of getting people acclimated and trained as early as possible. So, if you're a contractor, listening or watching this right now, and you don't have any training programs and you have a little bit of a slow season or even a winter season where you may not be working very much, you better do a deep dive.
What training materials can you develop? And don't try to think, you have to present a university format. Look at what your crews do to bring in some of your better people. Even if they're not good writers, have someone take their dictation and just write down the steps involved with whether it's forming up concrete. It's laying asphalt. Or it's stringing electrical lines if you're an electrician. Putting up sheetrock on a roof in whatever the case is. Break those into minimum steps, and then develop.
How are we going to train so that when we get new workers in there that could turn a company around in a season if they would take the time to do that? So that would be the first thing: training.
Where do you see the industry going in five years?
Brad: Well, there's no doubt technology is moving in. We now have brick lane machines in the mason industry, I don't think it's ever going to become strictly a technical only industry with no people. I think there's still most aspects of construction that need human bodies out there – perfecting. And that sort of thing.
So I think going down the road, I do think more and more technology is going to have to be assumed. I think that's one of the benefits that I would encourage contractors not to rule out. Not every young person, or younger person that comes to work is an expert on the computer. I get that, but they seem to have more affinity for the electronic approach. So anything you know, even little things like we're using drones more now than ever before in construction.
A lot of it's used for PR reasons. But I encourage people to use drones even to do a daily overview of what happened on a job. So it's a great and very visual way to give your employees updates. So I do think you said something like, you said you shared something earlier. I do think technology is changing big time and we need to stay with that, so that's probably the biggest thing that I see. And then just holding on to the people when they're here and when now we're back to doing the things you and I talked about over the last twenty minutes.
If you could give one piece of advice to someone thinking about entering the industry, what would that be?
Brad: I think the bigger thing is you may not know everything that there is about a particular trade or craft, or way you do things. To me it's never been the smartest people that always won in the end. It’s the people who hung in there the longest. This is a very very trying thing. I think it's the best industry in the world. In fact, I wrote a book on it and you can get that at Amazon, too. It's called Construction: The Best Industry in the World, and I really believe that I listed 21 reasons and the reason for that is if you like the people, this is a great industry. If you like daily challenges, it's a great industry. If you like to experience winning, it's a great industry. If you want to be proud of things that you can leave a mark on that you had a part in, it's a great industry.
If you don't like people, then don't come into construction because you're going to be very frustrated. But I think that to leave the mark going forward, I think it's a people industry. It is one that you have to have a lot of patience in. You have to have a lot of grace.
I'll say this because – and I tell this in a funny manner - but you know we have really taken on, and we often include employees that have some very negative and difficult backgrounds in their lives. So I always call this the second-chance industry. This is an industry that takes men and women who have maybe failed in their life earlier. They could have actually spent time, and they might have been incarcerated.
They may have been going through some difficult times in their personal lives. I've had drug addicts and cons working for me over the years, and not all those guys worked out. Most of them did actually, because when they've gone through those kinds of life experiences they don't want to go back there and I've actually had those kinds of young people tell me, I do not want to go back. I want to get my life together, and a lot of times those people make some great employees, but not all do.
But I do think that this is an industry that's very forgiving. We accept a lot. We tolerate a lot because good people are so hard to find, but good people can have bad days. Some of them can have bad weeks. Some of them have personal problems. They just can't separate. So it's amazing how much that we give people in this industry because a lot of time we just can't find other people, but we also care for people. I've never met an industry that is more caring for workers than the construction industry.
I agree, and I hear stories continually from people that the industry just surprises you.
Somebody's kid is sick and the company really steps up to make ends meet, or to provide a special experience for somebody. It’s in their company culture And it's really a great thing to be able to see.
Two other quick questions. First one: where do you go for industry insights?
Brad: Well, there are a lot of resources out there. Let me just start with what I know the most. I continue to write all the articles that are published by the company AC Business Media. And you can actually just – and I don't get any dollars off of those things– but those are just good things, for the industry. And not just my articles, but AC Business Media and Caterpillar. And there are a lot of the resources out - Elizabeth, you’re putting out some great podcasts.
I do think that there are a lot of contractors, and one of the things a lot of them don't like to do is read very much. They really don't. They'll read specs. You know, they'll read a profit and loss sheet, but they won't read literature, and I do think that there are pieces of literature out there – some that I’ve written, but there's a lot of other writers than just me, of course in the industry. But I think if you visit your associations, if you're in the roofing industry, wiring industry, in any industry, go to your association because a lot of those associations will have a plethora of information.
For instance, the AGC chapters all across the United States. I speak at a couple. I still speak at some today. The people who put on the World of Concrete, or the International Roofing Show, or all these different home modeling associations. They all have a great amount of resources. So I got to be real honest with you. I don't think you have to look very hard and very long.
If you will go search out some of your own industry’s association, even the state level will have access. Now you may have to join the association to get that kind of stuff for free, but you know – and a real quick plug for any of those associations, 'cause I've only spoken in a few of the thousands we have in the country.
But the bottom line is those associations are for the contractors, and so if it costs you a couple of hundred dollars to even a thousand or two a year, that's probably one of the best investments you can make for for education for your worker, and in fact many of these associations provide regular training even on the technical things.
The other thing I would do is contact some of your local high school districts that have career and technical education programs. CTE. Most of them are very open to having contractors come in and speak and there's a reciprocal benefit. There you get a chance to get access to some of the next generation of workers. You may find some of your future workers sitting in a class working on things in a construction mindset.
Last question: if you could see someone else interviewed on this podcast, who would that be?
Brad: Well, I think if you get Mike Rowe, he'd fire people up. If you get him, he may probably cost a lot more than I ever would cost. I think there are a couple of the guys, if you listen to my podcast that I do with Caterpillar, a couple of the guys on that call are technical guys. But they're also very practical guys. Chris Eker? We did an episode with him and Chris is awesome.
Chris is very special. I brought him on that podcast on Caterpillar. When I got to know Chris and saw the depth and knowledge he has, especially on just the entire equipment issues and all those kinds of things. Of course he's doing some other things now which go beyond that, but I just think yeah, that the guys that I work with on the Caterpillar podcasts are just real gems and there, and they'd be good people for you to interview as well individually.
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