A new study says that if contractors want to retain their skilled tradespeople, it all boils down to one word:


Engagement is the degree to which people feel enthusiastic about their work. Many studies show that companies with higher engagement show greater sales, higher profits and higher customer satisfaction.

“Engagement is the propensity of people to feel good about their jobs and be committed to their jobs. It’s a term that’s not used lightly in academia,” said Branka Minic, CEO of the Building Talent Foundation (BTF), a non-profit committed to creating the next generation of skilled tradespeople that spearheaded the study.

“It’s a process. You don’t just wake up one morning and decide to leave your job. First, you disengage. Then you see yourself in another company in a year’s time. Then you start actively pursuing it. But everything starts with people becoming disengaged.”

A disengaged employee can easily become a former employee, and then the contractor has to deal with the hassle of refilling that position. It can cost as much as $15,000 to separate from a tradesperson and find his/her replacement.

What are the keys to engagement?

The keys to engagement? Expanded opportunities for career development and improved supervision.

“Giving employees raises does lead to an increase in engagement, but if career advancement, skill development, and supervisor leadership are not at acceptable levels, the increase is temporary,” Branka said. “Employees who experience low engagement see themselves in different jobs in a year and are thinking of another job now.”

The study was conducted by the Oxford Centre for Employee Engagement in collaboration with the BTF. The study was based on a survey of 1,462 of people employed in residential and commercial construction. The study was funded by the Leading Builders of America.

The importance of career advancement and skill development

Here are some of the steps contractors can take:

  • Communicate opportunities for advancement and help employees take advantage of those opportunities.
  • Foster a positive, team-centric atmosphere and culture in which team members are encouraged to learn from each other.
  • Set aside time and resources for employees to pursue professional and skill development.

The importance of supervisors’ leadership skills

The person overseeing the skilled tradesperson on the job site, usually a foreperson or lead tradesperson, often isn’t adequately trained, especially at smaller contracting companies. Consequently, most leaders have no idea how to be a leader and may disengage their people on a daily basis without realizing it.

“We need to prevent disengagement, bring them back,” Branka said. “Otherwise, they get on that path and it’s a battle lost. Increasing their pay doesn’t solve the problem. That just gives them a little boost for a bit but if the reasons they became disengaged aren’t addressed, they’ll go back to the path of leaving the company.”

Here are the supervisor activities that can foster employee engagement:

  • Having frank conversations about performance early on
  • Achieving tasks on time and on budget through effective resource allocation
  • Running effective meetings
  • Managing time
  • Setting goals and managing performance
  • Employee motivation

“Engaged employees are more productive, dedicated, and happier,” Branka. “Put simply, companies with engaged workforces are more successful.”

The big/small divide

Branka acknowledged it may be harder for smaller contractors to make headway on career advancement/skill development and improving supervisory skills. Large companies often have a dedicated human resource department as well as the resources and expertise to provide opportunities for training and advancement.

Fortunately, there are a number of no-cost and low-cost training modules, tools, and resources that are available.

“If you make those free and low-cost resources known to employees and acknowledge when an employee goes to the next level of proficiency, a smaller contractor can make a big difference in increasing its employee engagement. It’s something. That’s better than losing that employee.”

She said that small companies do have some advantages they can leverage. For example, they can be more agile and flexible than larger companies. Also, a smaller contractors’ ownership is often closer to the tradespeople.

Focusing on employee engagement will benefit employers in the short term and will help the industry as a whole in the long term. As more people are happy and growing in their careers, the building industry will gradually develop a reputation for offering rewarding, viable careers, which will, in turn, helps the recruitment of new talent into the sector.

“The time to invest in engagement is now,” Branka said. “Our industry is already investing heavily in recruiting and training new talent and those efforts will be twice as effective once the sector is better and engaging and retaining its workers.”


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