You want happier employees? Channel the construction industry.

Construction Industry and Employee Engagement

Quick story to begin, shall we? One time in high school, I was walking home through the Upper East Side of Manhattan. There was an extraordinarily hot woman maybe 50 feet in front of me; at the time I was a big fan of Unhappily Ever After (for those that remember that show ever existing), and this lady in front of me was essentially 2-3x hotter than Nikki Cox was at the time. (That’s saying something if you’re speaking as an adolescent boy.) There was some construction going on a block ahead, and as she neared that group of 5-6 guys, each one of them started going H.A.M. with the catcalls. Honey baby and what a rack and all that type of shit; it was gross to watch. This poor lady had to duck into a building and ask the doorman for help. The construction workers high-fived and went back to work.

This probably happened around 90th and Park, where the average income is probably north of $300K/year; I thought to myself, “Whoa, if that can happen here, I shudder to think what would happen in a less-income-inclined neighborhood.” Then, of course, about 17 years later, this whole thing became a meme:

In the latter video, not everyone cat-calling is a construction worker, for sure. But when you take Story 1 and Meme 1 combined, I was always a little skittish about the whole construction industry. It seemed like those guys mostly liked their jobs, but were a little bit brute force and maybe needed to resort to some down-market female treatment in order to really get their rocks off; it’s kinda similar to why a random cubicle jockey gossips their face off at work. (You’re bored and you look for excitement.)

Turns out, though, that at the broadest level, the construction industry is actually something we should all be following in terms of employee engagement.

I wrote about TINYPulse once before; that’s an engagement platform that sends one-sentence feedback surveys to employees of a given organization looking for a real-time feedback arc. (That model could have problems on face, but that’s a separate topic.) TINYPulse just released a “2015 Best Industry Ranking Report,” which is basically a white paper they want you to download, give them your e-mail, and they’ll qualify you as a “lead.” (The Internet and sales can be a total farce.) But thankfully, Fast Company went ahead and summarized a lot of it anyway. (TINYPulse went and traded “leads” for “PR impressions,” which often mean more to a boss.)

Here’s the thing: the construction industry was among the happiest. Someone sent this to me before I saw the articles above, and I thought to myself, “Whoa, that’s a little odd.”

Well, before we go too far down a rabbit hole, let’s say this: the construction industry in the United States is valued at over $900 billion. It’s close to six percent of total GDP. So even if you’re nailing boards together, there’s a lot of money to go around. The United States has long used the housing industry as a barometer for overall economic health.

So, there’s money in the field (generally speaking); money isn’t the same thing as happiness, no, but more money being around can help with engagement, sure.

But dig a little deeper. In almost all jobs — construction and other fields — these are the three things employees hate, via TINYPulse data:

  • Unsupportive managers
  • Lack of tools to do their job
  • No opportunities for professional growth

We’ve been down these roads before: managers need to understand empathy; people need to have the right resources and be listened to; and we need to train employees and let them grow.

Thing is, these elements above — they’re actually handled better in the construction industry than in some more conventional industries. Professional guilds/unions help with the last bullet point. I’ve never worked in construction but I can understand the second bullet point at a literal level: if sites have more money going around, the tools might be better. Unsupportive managers I can’t explain directly, but if I had to guess, I’d guess this: in a cubicle-type job, oftentimes your manager might come from a different path than you’re on. As a result, it’s hard for them to understand/relate/support you (people tend to only “support” what they “know,” sadly). I think in construction, people get promoted from the rote tasks to the supervisory tasks, so the path is a little more direct. I could be wrong there.

So look, the cat-calling is there. The liberal elite perception that it’s a “lower-class” job is there. All that stuff is there. But maybe we should stop and look at what they’re doing right.

There are three core tenets to a person being connected to a job — a good manager, the right resources, and a chance to grow (all of which play into the idea of “purpose”) — and it seems like the construction industry is a place to look to see how that can be achieved. Can you cut and paste to your industry? No. But you can start with construction and think a little deeper about it all.

Ted Bauer

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