The Importance of Mentoring

In this special issue of Metal Construction News, we dig into the importance of training in the construction industry. This can be a dangerous industry and proper training reduces the potential for accidents on the job site. In fact, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires safety training. Without it, workers get hurt.

To help solve the labor shortage, using mentoring to retain employees is essential

By Paul Deffenbaugh

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There is more to training than safety, though. Learning how to do the work properly requires specific training programs. Companies that rely on on-the-job training experience lower productivity rates and higher warranty rates. To some extent, on-the-job training is little more than telling an employee to figure it out on their own.

There are lots of ways to implement training, from tailgate talks to formalized classroom education. But there is another kind of training that often gets overlooked in construction: mentoring.

Not only does an 18-year-old not know how to swing a hammer, they don’t know how to work and hold a job.

Does your company pair new employees with experienced ones? Does it support that effort with guidance on how to mentor an employee? Because mentoring goes beyond just learning how to quickly install purlins. It includes things like how to handle conflict on the job and deal with minor mental health issues. Mentoring can be all encompassing and the best mentoring relationships prepare new workers for long careers in construction.

My wife and I are involved in a local organization that helps families who have fallen into homelessness. Often, it’s a single parent who has lost their home because of joblessness, health condition, divorce or domestic abuse or some other precipitating factor. They spend weeks or months couch surfing with family and friends trying to find places that will allow them to keep their children in the same schools. They are the hidden homeless.

When we think of homelessness, we often picture people living on the street, but that is chronic homelessness. The people I’m describing are the hidden homeless, and they remain that way until they eventually have no more couches to surf, and they end up in a homeless shelter and land on the county government’s radar.

Besides providing transitional housing services, the organization we work with also provides mentoring. Every week, two mentors sit across the kitchen table from the client and go through budgets and discuss problems the client is facing. They help the client complete a degree or certificate program so they can improve their employment prospects and establish a steadier income that will support them and their families.

Mentoring is the linchpin in helping these clients succeed. Without it, they would emerge from the program with all the same problems and conditions they had entering it.

To enact significant change in your company, you need to have a mentoring program. You need to establish a system that connects experienced employees with new employees, otherwise your new employees will leave the company with the same skill sets they entered with.

It is especially important to mentor young people in construction because not only does an 18-year-old not know how to swing a hammer, they don’t know how to work and hold a job. When they stay up until 3 a.m. playing video games with their buddies and show up bleary eyed the next morning, they need a mentor to help bring home the lesson on taking proper care of their body. Remember, construction can be a hazardous profession and bleary eyed 18-year-olds can be a danger to themselves and their coworkers. There is another advantage to mentoring that often goes unmentioned. The mentor can learn so much from the mentee.

There is an old adage in medical school about how to learn a new procedure. “Watch one. Do one. Teach one.” Teaching a new worker a skill helps an older worker learn it better. It brings more nuance to the skill that may not have been there.

Mentoring is a learned skill in itself. I highly recommend the book, “The Elements of Mentoring,” by W. Brad Johnson and Charles R. Ridley. They identify 75 practices such as promoting excellence but rejecting perfectionism and slowing down the process and rejecting cloning. That last one seems especially important. You’re mentoring, not making a duplicate of yourself.