A Million Miles Later, Some Things Never Change

Written by Mark Breslin

Last month I was flying along, minding my own business, when the flight attendant came up to me.  In the crowded cabin she announced to me and the other passengers that, on this flight, I would pass one million miles flying on United.  Everyone clapped while I sat there stunned.  A thousand presentations and four hundred thousand people later – and now, a million miles.  My thoughts were interrupted by the woman next to me who asked, “So what do you get for a million miles?”  And before I could think, it just popped out of my mouth.  “You get an ex-wife.”
Everyone howled with laughter.

So, after that many miles and years behind me, I want to take the time to do an inventory on what I have seen changed or improved within our industry, and what has remained the same.  With pretty much unlimited access to the owner community, construction CEOs, and International Presidents, as well as learning specialists, training directors, Business Managers, field leaders, rank-and-file union members, and even apprentices, here are my findings for your consideration.

The Good

  • Unions have become much more business-like and focused on their ROI.  The old school, status quo dinosaurs have finally died off and the younger leaders are more professional and often getting it done.
  • Our safety culture is outstanding and remarkable in its depth and execution.
  • Accountability and performance matter.  Finally.
  • Negotiated work becoming dominant has changed a lot of the bad business practices and low-bid mentality.
  • The amount of resources dedicated to training currently being provided is both noteworthy and unprecedented.
  • The new generation of leadership has way more emotional and social intelligence… and uses it well.
  • Contractors are finally focusing on people as being their most valuable asset, and investing in them at a level not ever seen before.  For the first time, recruitment and retention has become part of any successful contractor’s strategy.
  • The Millennial apprentices that I meet today are better educated, more open to change, highly optimistic, and will change the game for our industry (despite their perceived ‘issues’).

The Bad

  • The stigma about working in our industry still exists today, and parents, teachers, and counselors still don’t understand the amazing opportunities we provide.  But at least the value of a college or university education – and student debt – is up for debate.
  • The intake system for apprentices in union construction still sucks.  It is often disjointed and lacks proper testing, interviewing, and other protocols; which leads to a 10 to 30 per cent drop-out rate and the entry of marginal candidates.  On this, we can do much better.
  • The structure of most major unions has not greatly changed, nor have there been the mergers or consolidations that were expected to increase resources, leverage economies of scale, and reduce union politics as an obstacle to change.
  • The current state of training and development by most contractors for their field leaders is pathetic.  Field leaders who manage tens to hundreds of millions of dollars in a career still rarely receive any form of leadership and management training – and this falls squarely on the shoulders of contractors for their apathy.
  • Many owners still treat contractors like s**t.  Transfer of risk has become a high art, exemplified by brutal specifications, insane schedules, poor designs, lack of communication, untimely responses, overreach by retained CMs, and a lot more – despite a full two decades of ‘partnering’.  It still looks to me like the owner community has a long way to go.

The Ugly

  • The other day, at a program for 200 field leaders made up of many companies, I asked how many of them had received praise and recognition for their work in the last month.  Not one of them raised their hand.  This demonstrates a broken ‘tough guy’ culture that has yet to change.
  • Last month, I asked 500 apprentices how many of them had already heard on the jobsite the phrases, ‘You’re not paid to think’ or ‘You get paid from the neck down.’  Every hand went up.  This too is a broken culture that needs to change.
  • Our industry is still often not a safe and supportive place for women and minorities to grow and succeed.  It’s hard to believe that it’s like this in 2019, but there it is.

Some Final Thoughts

In summary, I am actually very optimistic about change and our industry.  Yes, it is taking a while.  And yes, we probably could have moved faster on a lot of this.  But every day, I see and feel the hunger for more change, and a culture of ‘better, faster, smarter and safer’.  And the pace of this change pace can be shocking. 

What I thought might be a little experiment in 2018 with micro-learning leadership video training has resulted in contractors and unions putting 15,000 field leaders on the system in one year – blowing my mind and confirming that there is more momentum, belief, investment, and care for our workforce than meets the eye.

What also makes me really happy is seeing a holistic change where employers and unions are focusing on our workforce as people, and not looking at them as a commodity, a vote for re-election, or as a set of skills to be used for a jobsite function.  I feel the care out there, and so do those working for you.  I can say for certain that this was absent when I boarded that first flight way back when.

Finally, I’d also like to correct the record.  The woman who asked about the million miles?  I gave her the wrong answer.  The real answer is for all those miles, I was gifted an opportunity, and that was to make a difference — for an industry and for individuals.  It’s the same opportunity every reader of this article has each and every day in our industry.  Let ‘s all use it well to create positive change; there are many who are counting on us to do so.

Mark Breslin

About the Author

Mark Breslin is an author, speaker, CEO, and influencer inspiring change for workplace success across all levels of business.  He has spent decades advising CEOs and senior leaders in business, government, labour, and nonprofit arenas in both the U.S. and Canada.  Mark has improved leadership, accountability, innovation and engagement for organizations and individuals. He has spoken to more than 400,000 people and published hundreds of thousands of books on leadership and workplace culture.  For more information about Mark, check out www.breslin.biz