Challenging Mediocrity

Aug. 28, 2014

As longtime readers of Grading & Excavation Contractor are familiar, the magazine has focused on those areas most important to the long-term success of your business. Chief among the subjects are safety, regulatory compliance, technology, and, most important of all, the full commitment of your work force to the success of your common venture.

Partly because it is the nature of the medium but also because it’s the way we’ve approached information throughout our lives, the majority of our articles present these elements as separate entities, only occasionally ganging two or three together under the same banner. In general, this approach is effective in terms of communicating information, but it worries me that the process leaves something on the table”¦the knitting together of the big picture.

It starts with the fact that, despite all the machinery involved, dirtworking is far from a mechanical exercise. If it were, we could go immediately to robotics and spend our time shuttling back and forth between our favorite fishing holes and banks while legions of little black boxes did all the work.

Instead, machine productivity starts with our workers-their knowledge of dirt, their understanding of the construction environment, their appreciation for how individual efforts relate to the successful conclusion of the tasks with which they’re involved, and-perhaps most important of all-for their commitment to your company’s continued existence. Absent these, your high-buck equipment along with all the video game skills in the world won’t mean squat. This brings us face to face with the work force element.

We don’t need to get down to the fine points of scholastic performance to recognize serious shortfalls in reading, math, and science skills of young people entering the work force in the US today. It’s not even so much that achievement levels are at best mediocre from an international perspective; it’s that they fail to meet the most basic needs of many of our own industries today, including construction”¦a situation that will only get worse with our increased reliance on technology and demands for individual initiative.

Basic skill sets-math up to geometry, reading (parts manuals, articles) and writing (accident reports, performance evaluations), operating diagnostic tools, basic construction surveying-haven’t changed appreciably in the last decade, but the number of people with those skills has decreased, a result in part to the change in emphasis high schools now place on a college preparatory curriculum at the expense of vocational education. We all can speculate as to what has happened and why this is so, but these questions are beside the point. The real issue lies in what we can do about it.

So, what solutions can we apply to the situation?

In the broadest sense we must demand the redress in our education system that in many cases appears to place more value on behavioral objectives than in the basic knowledge and skill-sets that once made our nation the envy of the planet. It is not enough that we assess its shortcomings, but also that we call upon our educational professionals to do so with courage and honesty as well. Unfortunately, the likelihood of this having an immediate impact on institutional behavior more geared to the needs of the providers than that of the recipients is remote, forcing us to look for more direct answers.

Like it or not-ready or not-the responsibility for presenting the knowledge and skills has passed from the traditional classroom environment to the workplace. As the economy improves, and with it the need for an expanded construction work force, it’s up to you to ensure that the knowledge and skill sets of your employees are up to the challenges of a work environment vastly different from what it was fewer than five years ago. You may think you can ignore the problem, but for how long? Not, for instance, until you find your work force unable to match the pace at which technological advances will determine who gets the jobs and who sits by the phone waiting for it to ring.

The sooner you recognize and address the areas in which your employees need additional training, the better able your organization will be to take advantage of opportunities open to those with the skill sets geared to embrace them.