Reasons the Construction Industry Should Look to Hire Generalists

Reflecting on the last twelve months, we believe most of us would agree...2020 was a year we may wish to forget but which will not be forgotten.

As the coronavirus spread around the world, its effect was quickly felt by individuals and industries alike. On a personal level, we had to change our behavior to include physical distancing, wearing masks, and handwashing with fanaticism on a level Mom had never required. Businesses juggled the need to keep employees and customers safe while maintaining some semblance of normal operation. Particularly hard-hit were the transportation, retail, and travel industries. With all the upheaval, any wonder that the Chinese zodiac calendar identifies 2020 as The Year of the Rat?

COVID-19 made it necessary for individuals and businesses alike to seek new ways to stay productive while remaining safe. Employees needed to become proficient in using online tools such as Zoom, Skype, and Slack. On a deeper level, the situation blurred the lines between skilled employees and novices, between generalists and specialists.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “For New Year’s Resolutions, Never Think You’re Too Old to Become a Beginner," details the way in which, during 2020, many “skilled” employees had to become novices, or generalists, as they learned new skills. (A fundamental truth - we all start as generalists when we embark on learning something new, a truth to keep in mind when hiring for construction positions). While hiring a specialist (skilled craftsman) sounds attractive, a more practical choice might be a candidate with solid “general” skills.

Hiring “Generalists

COVID-19’s initial effect on the construction industry was to bring about an absolute standstill in many companies marked by jobsite shutdowns and worker layoffs. Going forward, by contrast, some industry experts are forecasting a construction boom in the post-COVID world. “Low interest rates, coupled with increased liquidity being pumped back into the market, will result in more projects and refurbishments.”

As vaccinations roll out and the effects of the pandemic lessen, now is the perfect time to consider hiring. But what type of applicant should construction companies consider? While a candidate skilled in a craft is ideal, one with a “generalist” background may be a wiser, more practical long-term choice.

As D.J. Wardynski explains in, “not only do you want to hire employees who are capable of performing the tasks required of them, but who can also overcome challenges and find creative solutions to various problems they may face”. Perhaps nowhere is that statement truer than in the construction industry.

In Construction - Training and Development Programs are Key

Every construction company is looking for skilled workers who can come in off the streets with the advanced skills needed to assume critical project management or superintendent positions. Companies typically look for a specialist who is highly skilled and experienced for that position. But finding people with those advanced skills is challenging. Companies with established training and development programs can develop their existing employees into those roles and promote them to newer positions.

Recruitment efforts should focus not only on experienced applicants but also on candidates possessing generalist skills, meaning a person who has broad general knowledge in several areas. These generalist skills and abilities can include:

  • Strength and Stamina
  • Coordination
  • Math and Language Literacy
  • Written and Oral Communication
  • Comfort with Technology
  • Negotiating Skills
  • Willingness to learn
  • Great Attitude

Train for General Understanding, Not Necessarily for Expertise.

A bestselling book is titled RANGE – Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein asserts that “a diverse group of specialists cannot fully replace the contributions of broad individuals. Even when you move on from an area of work or an entire domain, that experience is not wasted.” Epstein believes that when it comes to achieving expertise in anything, the best path to follow is to first “sample widely, gain a breadth of experiences, take detours, and experiment relentlessly.”

Seldom will a job candidate walk through your door with all the prerequisite skills, education, training, and work experience listed in your job post. However, many candidates possess those generalist skills needed for those positions over time. A company’s commitment to providing the proper training, development, and apprenticeship programs necessary to grow these generalists into skilled employees with a specialist mindset. While that process undoubtedly involves an investment of time and money, the potential dividend takes the form of a more skilled workforce that advances the entire construction industry.

Still, generalists and specialists are two separate categories of workers – meaning training and development programs should not solely aim to turn generalists into specialists and vice versa. Instead, companies will benefit from having a mix of both within each department.

At Cleveland Construction, we’re always looking for both generalists and specialists to join our construction team. Specialized training is provided for all employees to help them develop their knowledge and skills. It’s part of our ongoing commitment to build the strongest construction team in the country. We’re putting Richard Branson’s quote into practice: “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough, so they don’t want to.”