THE TIME WAS the mid- to late-’70s. The entire country was in the middle of a thrashing recession. Inflation was escalating and new construction was going on here and there as people sought protection in real estate from the ever-decreasing value of dollars. But with many ordinary folk also losing their jobs because of the machinations of the economy, neither residential nor even small-to-medium commercial new work was steady.
Having had a massive injury to my right leg due to do a jobsite accident a handful of years earlier, I wasn’t in a wheelchair like my orthopedic surgeon had promised I would be for the rest of my life, but I wasn’t 100% mobile either. While I had been doing estimates literally since I was 10 years old working for my dad, and had been working field crews since my 16th birthday and loved being out on the job, the extent of my injury had been making me lean more toward the pre-construction phase of estimating and the sit-on-my-rear phase of project management.
But at that moment I had to find work wherever I could find it. I found it as a combination project manager/ working superintendent/working foreman, taking what would wind up being my last job where I did any real full-time work in the field.
The contractor to whom I was sub had taken the job cheap and therefore I had to conserve all possible resources, which meant I had to use his men who didn’t have work (and to which he charged their full salary packages plus a percentage for O&A), and I had to hire cheaply what other crew members I needed from the general labor force. At least with the recession, finding crew members was relatively easy.
Boy, was my budget tight. I literally counted the no-hub bands and the copper fittings each night before the gangboxes were locked up. I shaved 15 minutes here and five minutes there off timecards if a crew member took too long for lunch or showed up a few minutes late for work. There was no point belaboring these and other points of trying to be totally accountable. It was either that or shoot the pooch, budget-wise.
One helper from my contractor’s work force was initially assigned to me, and for a month it was just the two of us. Laying out the ground-level underslab and working our way up to the second-story steel was easy enough for us.
As the superstructure of the building began to take shape and the piecework floor pans were welded into place, my going up and down ladders all day started just killing my legs, but the contractor refused to budget any more positions until all the floor decks were in place. It took a very real threat of my walking off the job to free up the purse strings.
Five more guys were eventually hired, which was the peak of my needed manpower curve. We quickly became a team, sharing a shark for a prime contractor who made us kowtow to a heavy-handed budget and sharing the fun and misery of working in weather over the following months that went from 100°F heat to 0°F, with wind-chill factors well below that.
We bonded like a well-oiled crew often does, sharing common joys and misery not unlike a combat platoon.
Then one day in February all the floors had been poured and all the main piping runs were in place. It was time for the inevitable manning-down.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve hired and fired crews all my life. If mechanics weren’t used to and couldn’t put up with the enforced labor hours of a job, they wouldn’t stay in the business. Still manning-down is hard, especially when the economy isn’t too good.
I flinched. Instead of being responsible, I called a crew meeting and explained we had to man-down. Then I left it to them to pick which one of the five guys would be left with me to finish out the job. I was hoping they would take the hint and choose with their heads, but they chose with their hearts instead, picking a guy who had a wife and five kids. He was the highest paid among them and was also slow.
So their poor choice forced my correct decision after all. I picked the one guy who offered the best value to me insofar as reasonable salary and speed to help me finish the job. Together, he and I finished the job two weeks ahead of schedule and low five-figures under budget. My prime contractor was so pleased that he gave every single crew member who had stayed with the job until the manning-down a low four-figure bonus and eventually hired most of them for his own company.
Did I chicken out initially? Yes. Did I learn my lesson and not let accidental democracy creep into management decisions in the future? Yes. Lesson learned and now, I hope, passed on.
H. Kent Craig is a second-generation mechanical contractor with unlimited master’s licenses in boilers, air conditioning, heating and plumbing. You may contact him by phone at 919/462-0773 or via e-mail at [email protected]