Think Small


January 19, 2016

Trade employers are mostly small businesses

If you become a skilled trade worker the odds are great that you will end up working for a small company. The latest Census of Construction Industries shows that the average construction company has fewer than 10 employees. Almost two-thirds of them employ fewer than five persons.

What’s it like to work for a tiny construction contracting or service company? Well, just like people, different companies have different personalities. Small companies have both pros and cons from an employee’s perspective.

On the plus side, being one of a few highly skilled employees magnifies your value. If you are good at your chosen image of small businesstrade you don’t have to worry about being recognized as a valuable performer or have to deal with layers of supervision that include people who barely know you. The owner or whatever supervisor you work for will quickly see your talent and most likely do everything in his power to treat you well in order to keep you employed with that company. Of course, the reverse holds true as well. If you aren’t a very good worker, there’s no room to hide. You probably won’t be employed by that company for very long.

Working for a small company can have its frustrations, too. Many small contractors are family businesses, sometimes run by the second or third generation of family owners. You’ll have to accept the fact that you will never be promoted to a higher position than the owner and his kids. Often you’ll find father and son (occasionally daughter) both working in the company and having a say in how it’s run. This often leads to conflicts and you’ll have to be politically nimble to avoid getting caught in the middle of family squabbles.

Yet on the whole, I think small companies entail more pros than cons. Personal growth can take many forms besides job titles. Working for a small company will expose you to many facets of the business beyond working with the tools. For many skilled trade workers, personal growth means going into business for themselves. Working for a small company can be a great training ground for eventually running your own business.

Another plus to working for a small company is somewhat more job security (if you’re good) than you’ll find in a big organization. Construction work is notoriously cyclical and when work slows down layoffs are common. Big companies have big overhead to cover and thus little choice but to pare their work force during slow periods. Union contractors routinely expand and contract their work force by utilizing hiring halls operated by construction unions. When a big job is complete and no other work is available, employers release workers to become available to other union companies who need them. Nonunion companies are more reluctant to let people go because they don’t have hiring halls available to ramp up employment when needed. This puts a lot of pressure on them to book enough work to keep everyone busy, though they don’t always succeed.

Small companies aren’t immune to layoffs, but because they are small they don’t need big projects to remain viable. Great trade workers are hard to come by, and most of the time a small contractor can book enough minor projects to tide them over without losing top-notch workers. When times get real bad some have been known to keep key employees on board by assigning them to “make work” projects such as painting trucks or straightening out the shop until the tide turns.

Companies big and small often adjust to slow times by keeping everyone employed but with diminished hours of work. Instead of a 40-hour week, trade workers may find themselves working only 30-35 hours. This results in lost income but that’s preferable in most cases to being out of work completely. When times are good most trade workers find themselves putting in overtime hours with premium pay. The smart ones recognize that this is a windfall and put money aside to tide them over for when hours get cut back.

Whether you work for a big or small company, the best job security for a skilled trade worker is to be among the best at what you do. Skilled workers are so hard to come by that their employers will bend over backwards to keep from losing them.

Mediocre performers, not so much!