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Tuning Your Crews

Jan. 19, 2022
Once you have a good core of guys, it doesn’t take very long to know who works best with who.

We all know the drill when it comes to finding, hiring, and training new people. It’s usually an exercise in futility, and something many bosses find particularly uncomfortable. In the market today it is more important than ever to pay close attention to your field personnel.

Once you have a good core of guys, it doesn’t take very long to know who works best with who, where there is friction and where jobs go smoother when particular people are on them… and not. Let’s face facts, our businesses have always had the potential to be lucrative. That said, why is it that the mortality rate for new start up plumbing businesses is so high? One reason is expansion.

The Growing Business Paradox

Sounds counter intuitive, doesn’t it? The business grows, more work comes in, profits increase, time to hire more help. Simple, right? Not so much. Unless a business starts out of the gate with capital, management, rolling stock, a shop, or offices and such, it has a better than 90% chance that it’ll fail. Most small shops start with one guy, two at most, wanting to start their own business. The skill level, and business sense, of the principal(s) is the determining factor as to whether a start-up will survive for three years—which seems to be the magic number—or crater and go away.

Problems arise when the guy who started the company is successful enough that he needs to hire more people. Reaching that stage, many shops fall flat. Considering the current lack of well-trained journeymen who are looking for a home it is easily understandable that finding someone who is the right fit for your company becomes a lower priority than in times past. Likewise, hiring and expanding beyond one or two men.

When you have crews, instead of just a couple of guys, the problems enumerated above get magnified. Keeping a crew, or crews, of two, three or more people working together in an efficient manner is a delicate task. Each crew member has strengths and weaknesses. It is management’s responsibility to try and match those people, and attendant personalities, with other people who compliment those strengths and weaknesses. Throwing a group of, we hope, highly trained people at a project without taking their individuality into account will cost you in the long run.

“Getting the job done,” while always the imperative, should be considered as, “getting the job done well.” In the past, you were either an apprentice, journeyman or, proudly, a master. When you went to work, you let your skills speak for themselves. Who you worked with was less important than the actual work. Sadly, those days are past. Call it “touchy-feely” or whatever term you want, but in the marketplace today especially, one must take personalities into consideration when putting a crew together.

Different Roles

Assuming several crews, there might be a designated field superintendent who usually coordinates the projects, crews. Above that, management may take a less active role in the day-to-day field operations and be more concerned with profit/loss and less with how things go on any given job. Still, there are parameters that can be quantified, and should be expected of your people, at each level of their job description.

Starting at the field superintendent level, the boss or management needs to make sure that, whoever the field superintendent is, they are:

Knowledgeable: Must have a full knowledge of the trade. Understand the scope of the work, projects and schedules, and can keep those issues straight between several jobs.

Able communicators: One would hope that your field superintendent would have good communication skills, not only in dealing with the crews, but with the clients’ project managers, suppliers and other trades on site. Should be able to express ideas clearly in both written and verbal form. Solves problems either when they arise, or before they become problems. Be proactive.

Below the field superintendent are project foremen. While technically a lower management position, the project foreman’s responsibility is narrower. They, too, must be able to communicate well and be:

Skilled at managing people: Foremen need to be able to get their whole crew moving in one direction. Making sure that each person under his direction understands what is expected, and how that work is to be done. He must be able to schedule his people, and plan and strategize on site to coordinate with the other trades to keep the work flowing.

Logistics experts: Foremen need to keep the work flowing by making sure that their people have the materials needed to do their jobs. This job includes communicating with the field superintendent or the shop, keeping stock on hand for daily work and making sure that long lead items ordered ahead of time are either in or have been ordered. Nothing will throw a monkey wrench into a smooth-running schedule faster than not having a piece of equipment or material being ordered in time.

Since the foreman runs the journeymen, he needs to have good communication skills as well. More importantly, he needs to know his people, their strengths and weaknesses. He needs to know that Bob is great with Sanitary soil/DWV but not so great with trim, etc. Or that Bill is better at organizing his workspace than the other guys and can be left to work on his own with minimal supervision.

Apprentices, probably more than the others on the crew, need to be nurtured. The young people today are not as thick-skinned as those of a generation or two ago. Adapting your training procedures to take this into account will make the difference in keeping good entry level help and having to constantly find new people.

These may seem to be, in some cases, trivial issues, but small problems which are not addressed early can lead to big problems down the road. Tuning your crews into a cohesive group will make it easier to get the result you expect on projects and will translate into better profits and less headaches along the way.

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a retired third generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at [email protected].

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