Monday, January 27, 2014

The Perpetuated "Trades vs. Management" Myth

As a manager in a large construction firm (I’m something like 4th in command, in a company with a hundred employees) I get a lot of resentment from certain front-line craft employees for being the manager, and that I “get” to “boss them around” when I “couldn’t even do their job.”  Most of the guys get it, but there are the select few that just don’t understand that it doesn’t matter one whit whether I can plumb a toilet or frame a wall (I can do both, by the way, but they don’t know that). 

I’m not an electrician.  I understand a lot about the electrical trade.  Much more than your average American, but if you asked me to properly wire anything bigger than a basic house, I’d be lost. 

That doesn’t mean that I can’t manage the efforts of the electricians under my purview.  I’ve explained it to one guy who, instead of being resentful and angry about it, was genuinely curious how I was able to manage people whose job I couldn’t do, myself, and he was quite surprised and pleased with my explanation, because I think he understood exactly what I was talking about. 

I asked him a series of questions, each of which was easily answered, and each answer illuminated his understanding of what I was talking about:

“As a carpenter,” I started, “you construct the formwork for the concrete foundations on large commercial and institutional buildings, correct?”

He nodded in assent.

“Where does that building come from?”  I asked.  From the confused look on his face, I saw that he didn’t understand.

“How is it that you come to be working on that foundation?” I clarified.  His face went from bemused to understanding.

“It’s because you bid the project and got it for us to work on it,” he said.

I shook my head.  “Yes, but there’s more to it than that.  How do you think that we came to know about that building going out for bid?  How do you think that we got on the list of acceptable bidders to bid on the project?  How do think that you, specifically, were slated to work on this project, as opposed to one of the other projects that we have going in town?  How do you think that the 30 plus subcontractors that will work on this project all know what scope of work they’re supposed to be doing, when to have their materials ready, when to be on site, where to start, how much time they’ve got to install their materials, and which materials will be needed, and when?  How do you think that the man lift that you needed to form the high walls arrived on site exactly when you needed it, and that the manlift was full of fuel and greased and ready for you to use?  Or the safety rails on the second floor and roof?  Or the forklift, or the crane that you used to pick form panels?”

He shook his head, I think understanding for the first time that all of these things don’t happen organically, but rather because someone is somewhere directing traffic to make sure that these things happened.  He’d never really thought about it; the manlift that he needed just always seemed to be there.    

I finished with one final, pointed question that I think drove home the point:

“Given all of those things, how important do you think it is for me to actually be physically capable of building some concrete formwork?”

He shook his head. I continued:

 “Why would that be something that I’d need to know how to do, other than to know how long it will take to build a panel, how much material goes into one, and how many times we can re-use it?  Consider that concrete formwork is one part of a massive whole, and if I was to be required to know how to do the job of every tradesman that worked on the building, do you think I’d ever be able to learn all of that?  To set wood floors, to polish concrete slabs, to plumb a rooftop unit, to run HVAC ductwork, to install a fire alarm system, to wire streetlights, to pave the parking lots, pour the sidewalks, install the masonry…  How could one man ever know how to do all of those things?  How important would it be for me to even know how to do these things, anyway?” 

He shrugged.  “I guess not very important at all.” 

“My job is to manage.  That is my trade, and it is what I’m good at.  The idea that a manager must know how to do the job of every single person that he manages is just silly, and is not a realistic goal at all.  There shouldn’t be any animosity between you and me because you know how to do something that I don’t know how to do, or because I’m directing you to do it.  If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t have any foundations to build, and if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have anyone to build the for me.  We’re a team, not adversaries.”

He shook his head, smiling, and I think, finally understanding.

But this attitude of adversity between management and the trades has been created and perpetuated for so long in our country, mainly by labor unions who exploit the adversarial relationship to their own benefit, that there are a lot of trade guys who literally have an “us vs. them” attitude when it comes to management.  They act as if management is just coasting along on their labor; a parasite that doesn’t accomplish anything but to suck the profits of their labor and claim as their own the sweat of their brow. 

It really is shameful that it got this way, because if it weren’t for management, none of these guys would have any work to do, at all.  It doesn’t matter how good this guy is at building a foundation, without me to procure the project, he’d be sitting at home doing nothing.

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