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Opening Word

by The Keystone Contractor

By Howard Bernstein, President of the Keystone Contractors Association

Over the course of my career, I have worked for companies ranging from small, family-run businesses up to a Fortune 500 company that presently has 340,000 employees. I have had a boss and mentor who worked into his 90s, and I presently work with individuals ranging from their early 20s to mid-60s.. With the depth and breadth of my experience, I am confident in saying that I am more confused today than I was 30 years ago when trying to determine what matters to employees.

Navigating the great depression, my grandparents felt a tremendous reward in having stable employment that allowed them to care for their families. As they stepped into retirement after a career of service, often with one company, they might even leave with a gold watch and a firm handshake for a job well done. While a steady income might have been paramount to them, we have seen many generational changes since then. And COVID turned what many of us thought mattered and threw it into the 30-cubic-yard construction dumpster, along with our construction debris and the inevitable television sets, rusted-out barbeque grills, and lawn clippings that neighbors living close to the job site feel compelled to toss in. But I digress…

I have listened to my three adult children and their peers talk about quality-of-life concerns with respect to their employment. Most would sacrifice pay for a company offering a culture that prioritizes one’s mental and emotional well-being over profits. Often, I hear that they want to feel a sense of purpose and believe they are making a difference day to day. A fellow interior contractor and friend in L.A. told me that after his staff was forced to work at home during COVID, most performed beautifully and threatened mutiny if they were forced back onto the L.A. freeways every day. Can you blame them?

While much of this is at odds with my generation, I know many of us must rethink our outdated models in order to recruit and retain top talent if we are to remain competitive. While we can’t offer “work at home” or “hybrid” options to our field employees, we can certainly be sensitive to what drives and motivates each individual as the lure of the gold watch has clearly lost its appeal. Hopefully, initiatives to focus not only on their physical safety but also on their emotional and mental well-being are being well received, as well as a growing recognition of helping those dealing with substance abuse rather than simply terminating them and sending them into a deeper downward spiral. KCA can offer much to help anyone who wishes to address these topics, and I welcome you to reach out to me or our amazing staff.

Strangely, the largest company that I worked for made me feel more appreciated as part of a team working towards a common goal than several of the smaller ones. This company had many metrics in place to assure that everyone performed at a high level. While I resented the structure and oversight at times, it created a culture where it felt like everyone was rowing in concert and towards a worthwhile destination. Those who wished not to row along with us were not going to last long and might be dropped off at the next port if not forced to walk the plank first. Even on my toughest days, I could look to my right or left and see that I was surrounded by brothers and sisters who were dedicated and hardworking. After a couple of deep breaths, I could refocus as in no way was I going to let them down. I hope that I have incorporated some of these lessons into my management style in a manner that matters to our employees, as I don’t wish to let them down either. I still have a lot to learn.

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