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The construction market payoff for hard work: Still room at the top

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Occasionally there is in the news a story about the new CEO of some well known company, a person who started at the very bottom of the firm and achieved incredible success. The most recent I've seen was about McDonalds, and it is a great story worthy of reporting. It seems, however, to be a relatively unique tale.

Training in Construction - this is where it all begins - the ABC San Diego Training Academy in Poway.

Very seldom do reporters share news stories like these that involve construction companies, because in the construction industry, the rise from the bottom to the top is not unique. In fact, it is common. Some of the largest construction businesses in San Diego and across the country are owned or managed by people who started as carpenters or electricians, or even as people who both owned the business and did the field work.

Builders and construction related businesses comprise nearly 10 percent of all commerce in the United States. It varies between 9 and 10 percent and has stayed in that range for years. And for all of those years, it has been a dynamic industry with great opportunity.

There is no denying construction work is hard work. Whether one is a first-year apprentice or the come from the bottom to the top owner, the effort required is huge -- early mornings, often long days, and in-the-field physical labor that makes construction attractive as an off-season workout for college football players. But the rewards are also huge, and the path to those rewards is remarkably diverse.

A top hand who chooses never to move to a management responsibility can make a $100,000 a year, or more. A beginning apprentice can look forward to a management or ownership level in a surprisingly few years. All it takes is hard work.

There are a number of reasons for that. The primary one is that the industry rewards industry. Serious effort, correctly applied, makes a company successful. Today's owners and managers realize that and understand that to keep skilled people in their firms, employees have to reap according to what they sow.

A second, equally important reason is that for as long as there has been a construction industry, it has been exceptionally diverse. It is a niche business, both in the kind of construction a firm likes to do and the size of firm most efficient to accomplish the work.

For example, builders specialize in any number of markets from tenant finish work to new construction, from concrete formwork to high-rise poured in place construction. Find the right niche, be good at it, and success follows. That applies to size, too. The larger the firm, the less competitive it will be on small jobs, because of staff and other overhead. A three-person shop can handle those smaller projects efficiently, profitably, and thus will generally outbid a larger firm geared toward more grandiose construction.

Still another reason is the opportunity for a nearly infinite number of tracks. The need for estimators, design professionals, schedulers, foremen, superintendents and an array of additional areas of employment in the industry allow individuals to focus on specific talents and succeed that way.

Perhaps the most significant reason hard work and well developed skills, through training, will open so much opportunity for success is that each year the industry adds about 250,000 fewer skilled and trained people than it needs to meet all of its staffing requirements. In a supply and demand driven economy the upward pressure is enormous. Thus, the industry truly must reward industry.

There is yet another value in becoming skilled at a particular craft, or for that matter, at several crafts. There will always be a demand for the skills learned. That demand may come from the industry, but it could just as well come from that bathroom repair job you might need to do at home. Construction skills, however employed, are useful skills. I often regret I didn't make a greater effort in learning them - something I encourage Associated Builders & Contractors (ABC) member employees to take advantage of at every opportunity.

Throughout this issue, we'll be telling true life stories of some very special individuals - people I've had the pleasure of working with as members or in volunteer leadership roles within ABC. The one thing they all have in common is a desire to succeed. Each started at or near the bottom - with little or no experience or knowledge in the trades. All have risen to the top of their companies, and now mentor others who started at the bottom, just as they did.

Hawkins is president and CEO of The Associated Builders & Contractors, San Diego.

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