Teaching the Soft Skills Every Construction Manager Needs

To build things, humans need to work together.

Graduates of today’s best construction management programs have an excellent understanding of the technical side of construction — think BIM, for example. But that doesn’t mean they have the skills they need to succeed. If you can’t read and relate to people, communicate well and write intelligibly, you’re not equipped to thrive in the real-life, day-to-day construction environment.

Construction managers have to stand up and make presentations that will help them secure projects. They need to direct and work with many different people on a jobsite and understand the perspectives of a diverse group of stakeholders, including architects, engineers and other contractors.

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Communication skills are especially critical. “If [project managers] don’t communicate clearly, there’s a lot of time wasted going back and forth with people asking ‘What do you mean?’” said Brett Grendahl, CEO of Grendahl Mechanical of Edina, Minnesota.

“There’s great data out there that shows we are losing productivity in the construction environment, and so much of that is related to the communication problem. It’s really hard to fix because it’s a structural problem,” he explained.

It doesn’t help that that each project brings together new people and new personalities. “On every single construction project, there is a whole new group of people who are brought together. They can be from different companies or they can be different people within those companies. Plus, work crews can change throughout the course of the project. The nature of the project exacerbates communication problems,” added Grendahl.

To help address the need for soft skills such as communication and managing interpersonal relations, the Minnesota Construction Association and the University of Minnesota have developed a program called Construct*ium, designed to help students develop them. Grendahl is the program’s media developer.

Construct*ium started about two years ago and is evolving over time. Today it includes an October meeting for students that centers around a construction management knowledge bowl and an April meeting that features a soft skills competition.

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Last year the soft skills meeting featured five contests that simulated different situations. In one, groups of students had to put together a presentation to try to win a project. In another, they had to work through a contract issue with the owner. There was a Toastmaster-style contest in which they had to deliver a short, impromptu speech on an assigned topic, and a simulated interview. A Pecha Kucha competition challenged them to give a 20-slide presentation on a construction-related topic of their choice, spending only 20 seconds on each slide.

Grendahl said the 80-plus students who attended enjoyed the exercise and gained a real understanding of the soft skills they need to develop.

This year the leaders of the Construct*ium hope to expand the mentorship program they began last year with the University of Minnesota. The goal is to provide mentors to more students, some from additional universities in the area.

 “We want students to see some of the real-world issues that the mentor is dealing with, and we try to focus it on the interpersonal aspects of their work,” said Grendahl. The goal is to help students see that projects are not just about facts but about people, too. The mentors will also assist mentees by providing them with real-world context for school projects.

Grendahl said these activities are making a difference in students’ perspectives. “The ones who have participated have definitely had more opportunities to grow and push themselves in the communications skills aspects,” he said. “I also think we have done a better job of humanizing what the industry is by getting them to understand the people in it.”

It takes a lot of communication and collaboration to get through the challenges the construction industry faces today, Grendahl added. “Most of it is not facts and figures, it’s knowing how to work with people.”

Freelance writer Mary Lou Jay writes about business and technical developments in a variety of industries. She has been covering residential and commercial construction for more than 25 years.