Why Mentorship Is a Must in Construction
How to foster career possibilities for your employees & the industry as a whole
by Amy Bourne
Construction mentorships—what’s the need? Construction already has internships and apprenticeships sponsored by schools, unions and other industry groups. And mentorships make more sense in the corporate world, where there is plenty of skill and nuance to gather. But, wait, isn’t that also true for construction? The aerospace juggernaut Boeing Co. is known for its emphasis on peer mentoring and has a “leaders teaching leaders” initiative. And Caterpillar, a major construction equipment manufacturer and vendor of construction-adjacent business, is known for its robust professional development program. Of course, these are massive companies with large-scale operations, but there are plenty more modest mentorship structures that exist in construction, and they may be more popular than you think. The Catch You may have heard of the ACE Mentor Program of America, which is for high school students interested in architecture, engineering, construction management and/or trades. Another example is the Construction Management Association of America (CMAA), which requires that trainees participate in a mentor-protégé relationship as part of the Construction Manager-in-Training (CMIT) Program. “One purpose of our CMIT mentorship program,” said CMAA Chief Executive Officer Andrea Rutledge, “is to identify goals, mark progress toward those goals and ensure managers in training are getting an opportunity to practice the full range of functions in the construction industry.” Simply put, a mentorship consists of someone with a genuine interest in a new field or in career advancement spending time with a person (or persons) who has more experience and wisdom or knowledge to share and is willing to share what they know. Of course, mentoring takes time, and that’s what tends to stop many older hands from sharing their wisdom. The truth is, though, mentorship doesn’t have to take a lot of time. And with the shortage of both skilled laborers and managers in construction—and growing project backlogs—mentorships are needed now more than ever. As the ACE website puts it, “Who better to inspire a new generation of young people to start careers in an industry than the professionals currently shaping it?” Got Mentees? Unfortunately, there’s currently a Catch-22 within the industry: construction managers, project managers and experienced tradespeople are aging out of their jobs and need to groom their successors before they leave. But they (and their experience)—not their deputies or associates—are the ones the property owners want on their projects to ensure things are finished on time and on budget. It’s this pressure, according to Rutledge, that leads seasoned managers to say, “‘I can build this wall faster myself than if I teach you how to do it.’” But Rutledge suggests that mentorships, even for limited amounts of time, can help prepare up-and-comers for the big jobs they’re going to have to start heading up. She thinks mentorships should be worked into performance plans for all above-entry-level employees. Rutledge also suggests that as firms develop a culture of ongoing mentorship, reverse mentoring (higher-ups learning from newbies) will occur more often, too. What’s stopping you from mentoring someone seeking a career in construction, whether that person is a high school student or an employee at your company? Mentoring doesn’t require a special certificate. Simply observing someone who is experienced in his/her role can offer a young mentee valuable knowledge. To begin, plot out a clear schedule and cadence, and make sure communication stays rock solid, especially if and when either party needs to reschedule. Inc. magazine breaks down developing a successful mentorship program into a few key steps: creating a structure, pairing (and re-pairing if necessary), training and, ultimately, evaluating success by establishing and tracking a concrete goal. Rutledge says the definition of mentor-protégé relationships should be fluid now, as millennials and Gen Xers have different approaches to learning. “The straight-line ‘I am your mentor, so you will learn from me and only me,’ isn’t quite the model young people are looking for,” Rutledge said. “They’re interested in having more than one mentor.” As such, sharing your mentoring responsibilities with a colleague or colleagues, through a coteaching setup of sorts, could be an ideal model. Mentoring isn’t just for upper-management positions, either—supers and tradespeople can also benefit from mentoring. Nudging a person, whether he/she is management or part of the field team, to be a mentor is a different ballgame from signing yourself up for a mentorship program. But you can make it easier by hosting a kickoff event, providing some guidelines for the schedule and agenda, and offering a firsthand account (if you have one) about how rewarding it was to help someone younger or less established get his/her feet on the ground, or to have been helped by someone with more experience. Tell them to think about the people who may have helped them excel in their career, whether it was part of a formal mentorship or not, and encourage them to share their success as well as their failures.
Taking a Cue from NAWIC The National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) has a well-known and long-standing voluntary mentorship program, offered through local chapters with guidance from the top levels. The association publishes suggestions on its website for successful mentorship programs at each level. The document’s tenets read as great universal guidelines for how a mentor and mentee should show up for each other so that they can each get the most from the relationship. “Mentoring has become vital to our chapters in helping each other to connect and grow in the industry by offering a reciprocal, self-directed learning relationship between two individuals who share a common bond,” said NAWIC Board Member Angela Highland, who is also a past president of the Orlando, Florida, chapter. Highland notes that while trade mentorships aren’t currently overseen by NAWIC, they are sorely needed and could help more young people—especially women—gain an early foothold in the construction industry. “If trade professionals could mentor young people and advise them on the possibilities, I think we’d see a turnaround in our industry and fill our ranks with a motivated and innovative workforce.”