How I Slipped In 'People' Skills For My Construction Students
Communication strength and 'people skills' are essential for career success. Complete a quick search online and one will find countless articles, books and references to the best way to communicate with others in the workplace. There also are a plethora of savvy tips and tricks to "move up the career ladder."
The construction industry, however, is a very technical industry, with schedules within schedules, budgets and portfolios and a host of computer and visual technologies aimed at delivering projects more efficiently.
So as part of my work as assistant professor of construction management, I sought ways to mix the people skills with the technical knowledge.
A constant complaint I receive from industry professionals looking to hire graduates for entry-level construction positions is that the graduates have a difficult time with professional communications. “We can teach them the technical skills,” I have been told, “but we don’t have the time to teach them the other stuff.”
One of those skills is the ability to understand what the audience and listeners are interested in.
While working as a consultant on numerous multi-million-dollar healthcare projects, I witnessed construction management teams explain to owner teams in great detail why, for example, a particular item would be in conflict with another item and how this could be resolved by moving another item 7 1⁄2 inches down—way more detail than was needed or wanted.
What the owners were most interested in were quality and schedule issues.
Another time, a member of the construction team was leading a group of the future hospital’s nurses on a project tour. The construction team led them through patient rooms, the cafeteria and the pharmacy—but not the operating room suites that the nurses were most curious about.
Technology tends to work against the completeness of an undergraduate's communication and interactions.
If a student is limited to a character count to express his or her thoughts, communication is implied rather than expressed.
With the many distractions in today’s world, students are not able to focus on specific items such as audience and content for extended time periods, and they lack the wherewithal to recognize and adjust to non-verbal cues during communication.
In one of my classes, I sought a way to mix communications into the technical education—and it seemed to work.
I did it with approximately 30 construction students completing a 16-week quantity take-off estimating course that included a two-hour laboratory working in teams of three and four.
Within their teams, the students were responsible for completing a quantity take-off and final estimating package of a two-story, multi-million-dollar office building. The teams also had to deliver a 15-minute presentation to a panel of industry professionals and respond to any questions.
About a quarter of the way through the course, I suddenly introduced a series of constraints that mirrored the stereotypically-preferred communication method of different workplace generations.
One team member was only allowed to communicate face-to-face, representing a Baby Boomer, while another could communicate face-to-face and via a telephone, to represent Generation X.
The final team member could only communicate via email or telephone, representing Generation Y. These constraints forced students to adjust their presentations.
The communication constraints fit the students and were familiar. But stakes were higher in the sense that they needed to use them in order to complete the quantity take-off estimate
These constraints pushed the students outside their comfort zones and forced them adjust their presentations.
And they seemed to get the point of what I was doing!
“You need to be versatile in communication,” one student wrote in his evaluation. Another said this mix of face-to-face, email and phone communication was exactly what he saw during his internship at a construction company.
I hope my students all come out of my classes as better communicators.
People are at the core of construction sector professions, and at the end of the day, human relationships will be the litmus test of bot project and career success.
John Posillico is an assistant professor in the Construction Technology and Management Program at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich. He can be reached at JohnPosillico@ferris.edu.