The case for focusing on soft skills during the hiring & training process

In the current economy there’s a lot of talk about infrastructure, stemming from President Trump’s proposal to invest $1.5 trillion to repair and rebuild the nation's crumbling highways, bridges, railroads, airports and seaports. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment of construction managers will grow 11 percent in the next decade, faster than the average for all occupations.

In order to meet the demand and fill the growing gap of talent in this field, we must think objectively about how best to outfit and equip the next wave of professionals to not only meet the demand, but to excel through crystal-clear communication as the No. 1 soft skill.

Construction is an industry that necessitates strong teams to complete new builds, remodels, roadwork and more. I’m not just talking about strong in the physical sense. While that also plays a role, I’m talking about strong in the interrelational sense. Construction, for all its outward appearances of equipment tonnage and total transformation of cities and infrastructure, really finds its bedrock consisting of soft skills, with communication the uppermost strata.

I have the opportunity to work closely with this next generation of construction and facility managers. In reviewing the job descriptions for construction managers over the past decade through Burning Glass Technologies’ job market data, we found one skill at the top of the list for thousands of national job postings—communication. It was followed closely by writing, organizational skills and planning. This finding is reflected through my conversations with colleagues and other professionals in the industry who are looking to hire the next generation of project managers.

As anyone in the industry can attest, being a project manager does not mean sitting in an office behind a computer screen all day long. Instead, you are on your feet, you are exchanging ideas, you are on your phone (preferably talking) and you are ideating with colleagues. It’s a constant stream of communication that supports everything related to a given build. The words exchanged among project stakeholders are the true pillars that hold up a new structure. And if they’re weak or flawed, the whole operation will come crashing down.

It is a uniform lament for employers that it is downright difficult to find individuals who have taken soft-skill development as seriously as they have learned to use specialized software or calculate an estimate. The truth is, if you can’t effectively communicate with your team, your subcontractors and your clients, then the entire project you are undertaking is in jeopardy. Without clear communication, projects can take longer than expected, requiring change management on every level, which could result in disputes. Attorneys that speak with my students say those disputes often come down to poor communication. 

It’s not enough to bumble through the management to build a building by only texting with the headphones on and your head down; construction managers must learn to build strong communication skills first, often just by repeatedly speaking and writing, as simple as that. And I might add, when the “worst” does happen, young construction managers must also realize they need to think critically before communicating. Mark Twain humorously said, “It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.”

I have made it known to individuals in my courses that they won’t be able to slink past the writing requirements—they must be able to write a solid memo via email, for example. They won’t be able to sidestep the presentations (pitching a project proposal that impresses potential clients is a must), and they can’t ignore their classmates because most assignments are dependent on group work. In this way, we slowly nurture the development of those all-important soft skills: communication, writing, planning and being organized.

I am of the mindset that we must coax inexperienced project managers to just dive in, make mistakes and learn from them. Great communication can only be developed through consistent practice and an accumulation of experiences, and we need to start accumulating these skills in the classroom. When confronted with that fearsome public oration of some sort, I always ask my students: “What’s the worst that could happen?” And that often does the trick. They engage and find it not to be so fearsome, after all. Whatever methods we use, the issue has never been more paramount.