The Defining Difference

By Andrew McCoy and Fred Sargent | Dec 15, 2019
Shutterstock/ Urfin




In part 1 of this series, we surveyed the current condition of the construction industry in view of the increasing deficits of capable manpower and project managers that plague it unendingly. In part 2, we highlighted rewards for anyone who chooses to make the transition from electrical foreman to project manager. In this final installment, we raise an issue that aspiring candidates for promotion to project manager—and their employers—cannot avoid.

There’s no secret sauce in the recipe for enabling a general foreman to successfully transition into the position of project manager. But there is a main ingredient.

For sake of argument, let’s define “ general foreman ” as the supervisor of a crew of electricians. Let’s define “ project manager ” as the person responsible for fulfilling all contractual requirements for a project.

The major difference between the job descriptions is the requirement for business sense . In most cases, a PM’s day-to-day responsibilities go beyond those of a general foreman with respect to the interwoven contractual and financial issues.

In this conventional scenario, the general foreman is responsible for productivity, and the project manager is accountable for profitability.

Now, as we all know, there is no standard organizational model that describes all electrical contracting companies. Side by side, two firms with same annual revenues, total employment and market niches will never look like identical twins. As an example of that dissimilarity, a general foreman in one firm may truly be fulfilling all the duties of a project manager in the other.

But overall, the defining difference between the role—and the required talents—of a general foreman and that of project manager gets down to the uncompromising need to have and demonstrate business sense.

It’s fundamentally about what separates contracting from construction. We commonly use the words interchangeably, referring to the terms “electrical construction” and “electrical contracting” as though they mean the same thing. They do not.

The difference in definitions provides a polite explanation for the legendary failure rate of new entrants. Builders must be businessmen in order to succeed.

Likewise, great general foremen must possess a requisite degree of business sense if they are to become great project managers.

Admittedly, the everyday role that PMs play must go beyond having this sense.

It requires “people skills” extending in 360-degree vectors around them. While their job titles may designate them as being managers, their personal success depends on their ability to be leaders. Most of them have a boss, so ideally they must also act as competent subordinates. And of course, they must be congenial to others inside and outside their organization, especially to customers.

In addition to knowing how to deal with people, project managers need to stay informed about the ongoing development of electrical products. We call that “professional knowledge.”

The relentless development of new products has always driven productivity in the construction game far more than the prowess of the players. Project managers must stay ahead of the learning curve in order to take advantage of what is newly available in products. Along with labor-saving hardware, some of the most useful ones are industry-specific software.

Underlying all three categories noted above—their business sense, their people skills and their professional knowledge—there’s a basic need for an appropriate amount of individual initiatives in every project manager’s portfolio of personal talents. No business-savvy, personable and knowledgeable individual can be a great project manager without a sufficient level of get-up-and-go. Some days it might be hard to muster, but that personal drive must be there to draw on for a multitude of purposes.

Great general foremen everywhere come to work every day armed with strong interpersonal skills, up-to-date product knowledge and more-than-enough individual energy. Crossing over into the ranks of great project managers calls for them to have or acquire the most important talent of all, namely, a winning degree of business sense. It means more to their success than anything.

Our take-home test contains one question. The question is the same for the electrical employer and the aspiring candidate. Both must answer. This addresses the commitment to an investment by each toward the successful transition of any general foreman to project manager. Together, employer and candidate can begin by inventorying current skills—and identifying gaps—in order to plan and schedule the education and training needed on behalf of that investment.

About The Author

MCCOY is Beliveau professor in the Dept. of Building Construction, associate director of the Myers-Lawson School of Construction and director of the Virginia Center for Housing Research at Virginia Tech. Contact him at [email protected].


SARGENT heads Great Service Forums℠, which offers networking opportunities, business development and professional education to its membership of service-oriented contractors. Email him at [email protected].





featured Video


New from Lutron: Lumaris tape light

Want an easier way to do tunable white tape light?


Related Articles