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A Call for More Mentoring in the Construction Industry

08/03/2017 Blog

Reprinted courtesy of Engineering News-Record, copyright BNP Media, November 1, 2016, all rights reserved.

Advice from a
veteran: ‘Eat lunch where you don’t belong’

I’ve always been a collector of advice, probably because my disposition makes me a magnet for criticism. The construction industry tends to attract candid people. So, as I came up through the trades after serving in the Marines, I found no shortage of advice—solicited or otherwise. These folks handed out advice about my job, work product, character and the cosmos in general. To quote the warrior-poet played by Al Pacino in the movie “Scent of a Woman”: “I’m giving you pearls here”—and pearls they certainly gave. Now, as I sit in an office several years removed from spud wrenches and fall-protection gear, I find a growing appreciation for the people who have helped me find my way.

As a young pup in the work world, I had a boss who was a walking caricature of a grizzled construction veteran and whose encyclopedic grasp of the drawings nearly compensated for his acidic disposition. While he was old and cranky and sarcastic, I was young and energetic and ambitious. He was short and tough and Texan, while I was, in his words, “a West Coast kid with tattoos instead of muscles.” Stuck together on a government job in the rural Carolinas, we locked horns more than a few times, but we developed a good measure of mutual professional respect. So, when he kicked me out of the job trailer on a frigid February day, I assumed it was because he didn’t appreciate my theft of hot coffee (and his ceramic mug).

The most important thing he told me was “to eat lunch somewhere that you don’t belong”— meaning, you should insert yourself into the company of other trades: Eat with them, talk shop with them, learn what they do, steal their coffee. “Grab the bull by the horns,” he told me, “because people who wait around to get taught never seem to learn much.” It was extremely good advice, particularly in an industry in which intraservice rivalry is so pronounced and the various tribes are so protective of their people. The lesson was a valuable one for me—so valuable, in fact, that the coffee mug still sits on my desk as a reminder that education and exposure should be a constant inoculation against complacency and professional myopia.

That superintendent is just one of several industry veterans and supervisors who have gone out of their way to encourage my professional development. More than any other factor, the one-on-one attention of professors, gunnery sergeants, superintendents and project executives has determined the arc of my personal trajectory and driven my career forward. Much of that mentoring has come from leaders who seemingly have sacrificed their time for no other reason than the communal benefit of an elevated workforce. My growing belief is that we reach our highest achievements when others allow us to stand on their shoulders, and I’m not alone in that opinion.

In light of this idea, I want to challenge myself and our industry to invest more heavily in the success of the youngest ones among us— personal, one-on-one mentoring. Our companies do a great job with recruiting, and our organizations work hard to retain staff; but, in and around those events and efforts, let’s make a point to identify potential and encourage professional development. Let’s explain things one more time, give advice and show our young colleagues the value of eating lunch with others.

Our growing professional success, however, is accompanied by growing demands on our time. The irony is obvious and apparent: Those with the most experience seem to have the least time for sharing. Further, in this revived economy, we are enjoying the good fortune of being overworked and stretched across multiple projects. But mentoring those around us is a deliberate choice, one made at the expense of our workday schedule and our time away from the job. We must pay that cost, though, because real-world experience is something that can’t be Googled and hard-earned perspectives should never be hoarded. Warren Buffet once said, “Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” Our years in this business already have paid for our own success, and we would be fools to not reinvest that value and pay it forward.

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