Builders Should not Underestimate the Value of ‘Soft Skills’
Most people would agree that “soft skills,” also known as people skills, are truly integral skills to have in today’s work environment. Just pick up a business magazine and there’s bound to be some article about the importance of people skills. However, with all the information available on these skills, it comes as no surprise that it can be difficult to define exactly what set of soft skills are needed in construction. As a result, the concept of soft skills has evolved into a blanket of gray fog.
As a professor of construction management, I too, have encountered the confusion of soft skills. I kept hearing from industry professionals around the globe that recent graduates obtain the necessary technical skills but severely lack soft skills. One industry professional described it very bluntly: “The students can’t communicate with people!” A shocking statement but not a surprising sentiment. So, how can I help solve this issue?
First, I couldn’t even explain what soft skills were needed in the construction industry. We need all of them, right? Well, yes, but not necessarily all immediately and not necessarily all to the same degree of use. However, I still needed to answer this question and identify which soft skills were directly related to the construction industry. I read countless journal articles ranging the gamut of academic subjects to develop a list of 117 unique attributes of what the article authors identified as soft skills. While this was a wealth of information, to incorporate 117 ideas of soft skills into the classroom was overwhelming. Plus, to what extent do “coping skills” or being congenial” have to do with the construction industry anyway? I needed to dig deeper to figure out which skills were most relevant to the industry.
I decided to compare the list of 117 attributes to six major industry publications, such as the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Body of Knowledge and the Construction Management Association of America’s Standards of Practice. These publications, along with four others, are the significant bodies of knowledge produced by national and international construction and project management organizations. My comparison consisted of determining the frequency of each of the 117 attributes across the six publications. Upon completion, I was able to develop a manageable list of soft skills tailored to the construction industry.
Communication, change management, and teamwork are all soft skill terms that ranked at the top of my research results.
This includes written, verbal and non-verbal methods of communication. Construction is a people business, so not surprisingly, communication is an essential part of successful business. Specifically, the ability to modify communication styles to best communicate with a specific audience is paramount. For example, one may need to summarize a recent cost report into three main bullet points for the CEO, yet also be able to discuss the fine details of the same report with a project accountant. Navigate the communication spectrum.
There is an old adage that states the only constant in the world is change. This is particularly applicable to the construction industry, where team members from all backgrounds collaborate to complete intricate projects. That being said: anticipate and embrace change.
If we are expecting change, whether it is from an owner, a designer or our own internal staff, it may have less of an impact when it happens. This is easier said than done, but we can help build our receptiveness to change daily. As construction managers, we tend to be critical path-focused people; after all, our job is planning and managing the plan. Perhaps take a different way to work every now and then. It may sound silly but it helps our body and mind adapt to a different routine so when something does change, we embrace it and adapt our plan accordingly.
Teams are amazing creatures. They have the ability to build wonderful and breathtaking projects, but also the ability to wreak havoc on peoples’ lives. It’s important to know that there are four widely accepted stages to teamwork, first developed by Bruce Tuckman in 1965: forming, storming, norming and performing.
Once the team is formed, there comes a period in which the team usually argues. Teams who are unaware that this bickering is actually a normal part of the process will seldomly move past this phase, resulting in a continuous storming phase. In order to move quickly through the storming phase, issues between team members need be resolved in an expedient manner.
Issues fester within the construction industry extensively; they rarely improve over time without some sort of intervention. A goal of the team should be to get through the storming phase quickly to continue onto the norming phase, in which, the team begins to come into their own. The apex of teamwork is reached during the performing phase, when the team is working on all cylinders. Think back to that project when you were excited to go to work and when your team delivered a successful project. Those are the hallmarks of a performing team.
Clearly there are more soft skills that impact the construction industry than the three mentioned above. However, my research indicates that these three skills have the strongest correlation with the industry; if we are to focus on a set of skills to develop or improve, putting effort into these three skills would reap large dividends professionally.
I have started focusing on these skills with my undergraduate students. Students work in groups for their projects, which not only helps them with their teamwork skills, but also teaches a student to modify their communication methods depending on the specific team.
Furthermore, my requirements from project to project vary to keep students anticipating change. The results and feedback I’ve received to date on my curriculum has been overwhelmingly positive from both students and employers. I look forward to continuing to emphasize the importance of soft skills with my students, and I hope to hear from some readers as they decide to focus on communication, managing change and teamwork.
John Posillico, PMP, is an assistant professor within the Construction Technology and Management Program at Ferris State University. He can be reached at JohnPosillico@ferris.edu.