By Peter Krammer and Bart Gragg

Leadership’s role in workforce development extends beyond recruiting and training. Once you’ve built your team, you want to keep the team working together—safely and productively—for the long run. This is more efficient and more cost effective. More importantly, a stable, engaged team is more likely to see problems and help you solve them before anything goes wrong. But when leadership is deaf to team members’ words and needs, disaster strikes, and people leave.

Take the case of Darien Sandor. His company, SunSand, was an innovative renewable energy construction company. (Note company and personal names have been changed to protect the privacy of actual client.) Built on a once-in-a-generation opportunity, SunSand was a leader in the shift to alternative power generation. However, what started with deliriously happy customers and enthusiastic investors ended in meteoric failure. 

In the beginning, SunSand’s facility construction was fast, and the quality of the work was top notch. The company used Artificial Intelligence (AI) and modular construction in ways competitors couldn’t compete with. Because SunSand built a reputation for being part of a cutting-edge solution, the organization was able to recruit skilled trades team members and teach valuable new and specialized skills early on. Business started booming.

But SunSand’s honeymoon phase was short-lived. 

By their third year of business, soaring injury rates and a management culture that treated people as expendable caused mass resignations at two critical project sites for the company’s largest customer. SunSand leaders disregarded warnings from the workers about safety issues and negligent managers. Crane operator and rigger turnover quickly rose to 83%. Each crane operator and rigger who left cost SunSand $27,000 and $23,000 to replace, respectively. 

As the word spread that the principals at SunSand were more concerned with the organization’s image than its people, fewer people wanted to work for SunSand. With the shortage of available crane operators, one of the two critical projects ground to a halt for 6 weeks.

As a result, SunSand’s largest customer awarded six additional contracts that SunSand was counting on to its competition. Almost as quickly as his company’s rise to success happened, Sandor soon found his company facing Chapter 11. 


While SunSand’s experience is extreme, it is not unique. The skilled trades development problem has many well-known and frequently discussed causes, including the tsunami of retirements, the lack of workers entering the field, unsafe and unstable working conditions, and the hazing that women and minorities face regularly.

Too often when we ask company leaders why these and other conditions exist in their companies, they have a difficult time looking in the mirror and admitting that first and foremost, they have an organizational problem. We can trace each of the burning issues in this market, just as we can in the example of SunSand, to a lack of leadership.

In SunSand’s case, it happened when the company’s leaders began thinking that the technology, the skilled craft, and the organization’s image as a leader in a new market were all more important than the people actually doing the work. Truly effective leaders understand that the best way to drive and sustain individual and organizational performance over time is to ensure all employees are committed, fully engaged, feel safe, and find meaning in their work. Although leaders cannot make people be committed and fulfilled, they certainly can create the conditions that facilitate engagement and high performance.

A leader is anyone who manages anything in your company—from the CEO, VP of Finance, and Director of Safety, to the Superintendent, Supervisor and Foreman. Leaders who understand the significance of workers’ priorities, and who also realize they can encourage performance by creating the conditions for employees to thrive, are far more successful building a culture of engagement, safety, and growth. 

Every member of your team wants a say in their livelihood and their future, even if they don’t get their way. If you don’t involve them, they do their own version of risk analysis. If the overwhelming evidence points to danger or disrespect, they will leave. And, if like SunSand, word gets around, they won’t join in the first place.

Just because a company offers a worker a job and provides training in a skill, it does not ensure loyalty from the worker, especially if the work environment does not keep them alive and thriving. When an internal career pathway is clear, when team members have input on decisions, and when everyone is afforded the respect to which they are entitled, only then will finding and keeping people willing and able to do the hard work of trades succeed.


Building a successful workforce development program means honestly answering a set of questions designed to understand how your company is perceived internally and externally.

  • What do we offer to our team that the competition cannot? 
  • Why would someone want to build a career in my company?
  • What is our attitude towards new team members who join?
  • Why do we accept high turnover as “normal” and a cost of doing business? 
  • What do our customers think when we can or cannot keep the A-team together? 

Workers ask their peer groups where the work is and then ask about the leadership, starting at the project level.


Workforce development is fraught with challenges on an individual, community, and employer level. A good recruiting and training program only brings people in the door. Loyalty and engagement are responses to conditions that all leaders create. As an employer and a leader, when you ensure the culture is right, people are far more likely to join and stick around to help build a successful and lasting business

About the Authors:

Peter Krammer has been helping leaders put their heads and hearts into their businesses for more than 30 years. Peter, senior partner with Okos Partners, is an author, consultant, trainer, program designer, entrepreneur, and jazz musician. For more about Okos, visit

Bart Gragg is president of Blue Collar Universityˇ. He works with business leaders, managers, and supervisors to plan and work more effectively with each other. Bart is an author, advisor, trainer, barrel racer, and photographer. For more, visit

Modern Contractor Solutions, August 2021
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