Her freshman year at Mississippi State had not gone as planned, and Holley Thomas needed something to do. Back home in Double Springs, Ala., she decided to try an automotive manufacturing and robotics curriculum at a local community college. The last of the required courses was welding, and she dreaded it. Still, it was a requirement, so she plunged in.

She loved it. While making a weld, she experienced the feeling of peace and concentration described by skiers, golfers and fly-casters, an opportunity to block out the world and focus exclusively on the task at hand.

Thomas was hooked. She took more welding classes and in 2009 was hired as a welder's helper by Houston-based global construction firm KBR. Since then, she has risen through the ranks to become a piping general foreman and certified welding inspector. In March, the Associated Builders and Contractors named Thomas its craft professional of the year.

"Probably the biggest thing I like when I'm welding is that I'm not thinking about anything except the weld I'm making right then," Thomas explains. "So it's very freeing and relaxing at the same time."

Taking pleasure in one's craft is common among people who work in construction, so much so that the industry ranked first in a February survey of job satisfaction conducted by TINYpulse, an organization that analyzes employee happiness.

Construction led the way among 12 industries surveyed; consumer products and services employees and those working in technology and software were ranked second and third, respectively; manufacturing came in last, just after the government and nonprofit sectors. TINYpulse says construction workers expressed satisfaction with colleagues and the job and enjoyed completing projects.

The findings come as no surprise to Greg E. Sizemore, a 30-year industry veteran and now the open shop group's vice president of environment, health, safety and workforce development. "Construction workers take care of one another," Sizemore says.

"Craft professionals who have good helpers working with them are more than willing to invest their time and energy in helpers as they come up through the industry," he says. "Craft professionals remember the career path they traveled to get to where they are, so they are more than willing to help the next generation along that same path."

Economic forces also play a role, says Brian Turmail, director of communications for the Associated General Contractors of America. "I think there are a couple of factors at play," he says. "From a labor point of view, it's a worker's market. We see a lot of firms increasing benefits and pay, making employment more attractive for their staff. More broadly, there's a satisfaction to being involved in a team environment and taking on different challenges every day. The satisfaction of having built something that's going to last for decades to come."

That rings true for Thomas. "The greatest thing is to go back to the parking lot each day and say, 'There's something I helped to build. My weld is in that place, and my weld is the only thing that's holding that up,' " she says. "When I first get to the site, it's just dirt. Two years later, when I leave, there's this huge plant."

Aaron Velasquez, an electrician with Anaheim, Calif.-based Sunwest Electric Inc., says, "Taking pride in your work, and being a builder of a city—it's a great experience." For the past two years, Velasquez has been working on a large addition to San Antonio Regional Hospital in Upland, Calif. The future import of his work fuels him with a strong sense of urgency.

"One day, somebody's life is going to be on that receptacle, that emergency power that you're installing," he says. "Or maybe a machine is going to be breathing for somebody who just got out of a car accident. Everything has to function correctly every single time. The install has to be perfect."

Upward Mobility

That kind of commitment pays off in job advancement in an industry where people can build their skills, master a craft and possibly own their own company.

"In this business, hard work really does show through right away," says Mike Bradley, a journeyman and mechanical insulation installer with Iowa Insulation in Nevada, Iowa. He also teaches the company's apprentices. "If you work hard right away and do your job right the first time, especially in construction, people will take notice instantly. And once people take notice, that first impression … you can only go forward from there."

Drew Golder, a journeyman electrician with Tri-M Group, an electrical contractor in Kennett Square, Pa., emphasizes training and career growth as the keys to employee satisfaction. "I know where I started, about five years ago. I didn't know much of anything about electrical, and looking back, how far I've come. I still have a ton to learn—and, year by year, I can see that … I've come a long way. And that feels satisfying to know where you were and where you're going," he says.

Golder also stresses the importance of compensation and investment in employees. "The reason why we all work is because we need to pay bills … I think taking care of [employees] will kind of push them to learn more, stick around, want to be there. They'll feel appreciated. There's a lot of trades where you talk to the employees and the employer doesn't give them raises, tries to keep their pay scale as low as possible," Golder says. "And then I've also seen companies where they pay their employees, they pay for training, and they show the employees respect and appreciation. And you can definitely tell a major difference in the type of work they do and their appearance and just all-around. I think it looks good for the company, and also the employees are happy that they're being taken care of."

Darrell Bunting, president of Iowa Insulation, believes in good pay, training and advancement and recently created an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) for his workers.

"The idea [of the ESOP] is to get more of our employees' involvement in what they do, to take more of an interest," he says. "It also helps … to get their opinions, to get their ideas … just more engagement, and getting more of their ideas out there is what gets them really committed and involved."

Bunting is hardly alone in his views. Pat Lynch, president of consulting firm Business Alignment Strategies Inc., says employers improve productivity when they enable staff members to voice their opinions about the organization. It is also important for companies to focus on job growth for promising employees.

The lack of career advancement was among the three biggest sources of employee dissatisfaction in the TINYpulse survey. The other two were unsupportive managers and a lack of tools to get the job done.

"If you want to build a winning team," says Bunting, "you really need good people, and you keep good people by treating them well and by developing career paths for them and by having your finger on the pulse of where they want to be and how fast they want to move."

For contractors, retaining good employees will become even more challenging over the next five to 10 years. U.S. Labor Dept. statistics project a 24.3% growth in the job market for construction laborers between 2012 and 2022. That's good news for people entering the industry, but it also means company owners will need to work harder than ever to keep their employees safe and satisfied.