Four Obvious Hurdles: From Foreman to Project Manager

Hurdles Photo Credit: Shutterstock / Inamar
Photo Credit: Shutterstock / Inamar

Staffing shortages have plagued the construction industry in recent years and are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Part of this larger issue is a constant shortage of project managers (PMs). In boom times or busts, there are never enough capable PMs to go around.

Logically, the first place to begin a talent search is among the ranks of foremen. They know construction. They have at least secondhand knowledge of costs, schedules, reporting and contract requirements, and other concerns they would take on as PMs. Today’s foremen are the logical candidates to become tomorrow’s PMs.

But there are hurdles in the way.

Hurdle No. 1: Attracting talent

SARGENT: I think hurdle No. 1 is that the industry has not done enough to attract talented people into the role of PM. It has never been cast in heroic proportions. The role has never been romanticized.

While many factors might deter an electrical foreman from becoming a PM, the industry’s failure to have purposefully campaigned to attract candidates leads the list.

McCOY: One of the biggest hurdles is the “dirty boots” image. Say “construction” and people imagine a muddy job site that is certainly not for them—nor their children!

Working at a university, however, we are granted an undeniable observation: construction management program graduates are highly sought after. Our graduates typically receive multiple job offers with high starting salaries. Once they can see various tracks of work and opportunities in the industry, they think beyond just landing a job. They start to envision a long-term career.

Hurdle No. 2: Compensation

SARGENT: In most instances, there’s a wide gap between the total compensation of a foreman and a project manager. In a 40-hour work week, the difference is due mostly to the cost and coverages of union fringe benefits. In an overtime scenario, the difference in compensation levels widens dramatically.

If asked about becoming a PM, the first thing that will come to a foreman’s mind is pay and benefit disparity.

McCOY: Yes, but there are many other countervailing factors.

PM positions present opportunities and rewards in terms of leadership, service, security, longevity and, yes, intellectual curiosity. Upper-level management positions provide security from industry financial cycles and stability for work-life balance, both valuable to a significant part of the population.

Over time, opportunities for leadership run beyond the construction site. Leadership includes giving back and serving others, particularly of value to millennials. Management positions provide greater flexibility to devote time to such activities.

Of course, as everyone ages, management positions by comparison are less demanding physically.

Finally, there is intellectual curiosity. Thanks to technology, the construction industry is changing faster than ever before. It should attract the younger generations that are eager to embrace technology and ready to drive it through an organization.

Hurdle No. 3: Added responsibility

SARGENT: PMs are saddled with a long list of responsibilities that a foreman does not have to suffer, and many of those responsibilities require working after-hours. Foremen may have to read reports, but they ordinarily do not have to produce them.

McCOY: As PM, you have the satisfaction of driving processes, not just following them. It is especially rewarding when you can apply your field experience to improve on-site activities to drive the entire company in a better direction.

Yes, PMs often work longer hours. But good managers build a team around them. With an effective team, the difference in hours can be eased.

Hurdle No. 4: Stress of leadership

SARGENT: Some foremen-turned-PMs may feel taken aback supervising long-time comrades. It’s tough to be a stern taskmaster over friends, family and fellow workers, which can be further complicated because roles might be reversed on the next job.

McCOY: When I first applied to college, my father-in-law advised me, “You need education because, in your career, you want to be the person invited to the table for your knowledge.” His advice applies whether one’s education is from schooling or the trades, as foreman or PM. Don’t allow the occasional stress of leadership overtake the ongoing satisfaction of working from a solid platform of knowledge. I find it much easier to be a taskmaster when I have meaningful data, versus merely my druthers, to support my decision-making.

Using your knowledge for the general good is what counts. It’s called doing the right thing.

Next time, we’ll look at the not-so-obvious rewards for foremen looking to become PMs.

About the Author

Andrew McCoy

Service and Maintenance Contributor

Andrew McCoy is the Preston and Catharine White Fellow and Department Head of the Department of Building Construction in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction at Virginia Tech. Contact him at apmccoy@vt.edu.

About the Author

Fred Sargent

Service and Maintenance Contributor

Fred Sargent is an electrical industry consultant focusing on service expertise. He can be reached at fred@sargent.com.

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