Everyone in construction is talking about the shortage of skilled labor and we constantly are asking how we as an industry can close the gap. Many conversations mention well-meaning programs like builder sponsored trade school partnerships with local community colleges, as well as how different trades might create their own school to quickly educate a non-skilled employee. These are all great conversations and solutions for the future, but from a practical viewpoint, what do we do in the meantime to address the issue, today?
The initial impulse is to manage the number of labor resources. We trick ourselves into thinking the problem can only be solved by more bodies. Every company has its core competencies and business processes that have made them successful up to this point, and as a result, we often suffer from a blind spot. As owners and managers, we must be willing to evaluate our current processes, to seek out and implement better ways of doing our work. So, at C&B Electric, we turned the question around: What can we do as a company to maximize the productivity of our existing skilled labor?
This shift involved focusing on work QUALITY; how productive is the time our employees spend on the job? How much do we know about the issues that are lowering company productivity? Are we maximizing the efficiencies of our top skilled talent, or is a well-intentioned team burning hours every day chasing papers, searching text messages, and confirming job information from our own team and the builder?
Being open-minded enough to identify critical issues and being willing to make a change to the daily operations is rarely at the top of our priority list. That’s too bad, but it’s understandable. Change requires effort and most of us are relatively comfortable with the way we do things today. It’s not that we don’t think it could be better, but we know the headaches that can come along with changes.
In my family-owned electrical contracting business, we have decided to constantly assess our processes and seek ways to improve. As a result, we frequently invest in technology that will eliminate problems and smooth workflows. It can be a hassle, sure, but everyone here can see that the growing pains are worth it. Using technology has been the primary way we have increased the quality of our labor. As we’ve implemented various solutions, our productive time-on-task for every worker has increased, and that means we’ve needed fewer workers than other trades in our industry. Period.
Being an early adopter of iPads for our field supervisors, we have continually pushed to maximize and improve the efficiencies for this position. We rolled out Bolt Software a little over 6 years ago and currently run the operations of our company through Bolt. I recently asked my field supervisors and managers about the impact that Bolt had on them and their workday. The result? Their number one response was this: every team member now has access to job information from their computer or mobile device.
We’ve tried to do estimates of the specific costs saved by using Bolt, but I’m not sure I can put a dollar value on the amount of time and frustrations that have been eliminated by giving the entire team access to the job information. Being able to open Bolt, and in a few seconds answer a question from the builder, the crew, or others in the company without having to chase down a job folder or review a schedule board or spreadsheet is invaluable. If we can prevent wasting 5% of the day for all my employees then that time can instead be spent on a task, finishing jobs, rather than playing phone tag or driving across town. It can add up to hundreds of hours a week that I don’t have to hire new people to work!
For reference, here are several specific daily scenarios where Bolt saves us time, headaches, and money, and can help us to manage our ‘labor’ costs efficiently:
- The builder calls to verify that scheduled work is still on our schedule.
Bolt lets our Office or Field employees quickly answer the question because they have visibility into the schedule.
The old way we did things was to take a message, then call our internal supervisor, or drive to the office to check the whiteboard schedule and then call the builder back…
- The builder calls in a panic and says, “you missed something and the house is sheetrocking (or closing!) tomorrow”.
Now, with Bolt, our supervisor has access to all the plans in his mobile device, validates requests, and either sends a crew out to fix issues or we request a purchase order–right in Bolt.
- Job site takeoffs and quality walk lists are immediately available when completed.
A manager doesn’t have to wait until “they get back to the office” to turn stuff in or question when it was completed.
- Pictures are worth a thousand words. Completed work is documented with pictures from our mobile phones and tablets, and stored in Bolt. We also take pictures when a job site is not ready for our install and can share these with builders on the spot. The entire team has access to these photos, allowing us to charge for return trips and protecting us from back charges down the road.
C&B has used Bolt Software long enough that its use is ingrained in our team–it’s just the way we do business. It started with a willingness to examine what issues were really costing us time and money, and openness to using technology to address those issues. Now, working productively is just a part of our culture. From a management perspective, I have 100% visibility into the schedule which gives us accountability for both my employees and our customers.
Even today, we are continually looking to help our field supervisors & crews be as efficient as possible to make sure we are maximizing the time of our current labor force. Because it’s just smart to make the most of the time you’re paying them for before looking at hiring someone else.