Subcontractors are no substitute

In the end it pays to hire and manage field employees

Ron Fredriksen
Guest Columnist
When patronizing service-based businesses such as your local physician, dentist, bank and auto repair shop, imagine if none of the people you met there really worked for those companies. What if you learned they were "subcontracted out" to the lowest bidder and that the business owner employed only a few supervisors? You might consider taking your business elsewhere.

Commercial construction is also a service-based business. The same architectural drawings and raw materials installed by two field employees with different skills and decision-making abilities result in two completely different outcomes.

Many general contractors become "brokers," subcontracting out virtually every portion of a project. They think that this practice controls the cost of a project since the subcontractor is responsible to supervise their own employees as well as guaranteeing their performance and price.

Examine a job site and you may see the effects of this "broker" mentality. Job site leadership is lacking so the work of subcontractors may not be coordinated; sometimes daily cleanup is not a requirement. Safety problems, often caused by drug use, can become rampant.

Some project owners accept this state of affairs. They say, "It’s just construction." Instead, they need to recognize that their huge real estate investment is not being properly managed. Ultimately, the project owner is likely to pay a steep price in higher maintenance over the lifetime of the building due to poor quality construction.

Granted, some highly specialized trades need to be subcontracted out. But the far better approach is to perform as much work as possible with one’s own field employees, from demolition and cleanup to concrete work, rough and finish carpentry and daily job site supervision. The time spent on recruitment, training and daily scheduling of field employees is a smart investment in current and future project success.

Subcontractors themselves even benefit from this approach. Because they have a dedicated company foreman on the job site, their questions are answered, their work is coordinated, and their quality and attention to detail is assured.

I know from my own experience that having dozens of field employees is management intensive. Accurate production goals have to be set when assembling a project budget. Otherwise our company must absorb any cost overrun and our profit margin erodes.

But along with a commitment to manage these field employees comes greater flexibility. Field schedulers have the ability to move employees from job to job with a phone call. If a project has a time-critical component, a large number of field employees can focus on a task and complete it quickly.

Quality is always consistent due to the standardized training. Job site safety is assured since field employees are known quantities. They have the authority and training to monitor all work on the job site and direct any subcontractor to stop what they are doing if it is unsafe.

By the same token, they recognize themselves as guests on the client’s property. The job site atmosphere is cooperative and friendly.

I have observed that successful commercial contractors do what is best for their clients instead of taking the easiest path. Yes, it is hard work to manage field employees, but the quality of the completed project is greatly improved. Long-term maintenance costs are minimal. The client’s substantial investment in real estate is protected and preserved.

Best of all, these loyal field employees reduce the business owner’s risk since they are committed and dedicated to the company’s success. Concentrated, focused management expertise results in a win-win for both the client and the construction business owner.

Ron Frederiksen is president of RSV Construction Services Inc., a Vancouver commercial and industrial design-build and remodeling firm. He can be reached at 360-693-8830.

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