The previous articles in this series laid out the foundation for creating a worker-centered company—a company that provides the structure for the full development of its workers and their neck-up and neck-down skills—and the framework (based on an understanding of how the inexperienced worker learns) for how to teach workers the essential skills to be productive tradespeople. These skills, once learned, exist inside the mind and body of the tradesperson in the same way the rough mechanicals of a home exist under the drywall: largely out of view but crucially important. Defining these “rough-in” skills is the focus of this article and the key for unlocking the potential of the “crew member” point of the company structure triangle.

What’s Already Roughed-In?

Anyone who has ever hired a “greenhorn” for construction site labor has a method for determining if the potential hire is worth putting effort into. Very early in my career, I was given an opportunity solely based on having matched the foreman stride for stride as he quickly walked me around a job. I soon realized this was his technique for quickly determining what skills I already had roughed-in.

When I meet a potential hire, I look for signs of rough-in skills that show me an ability to work hard, work safe, stay busy, and stay organized. Being on time for an interview and showing up dressed for and ready to work are good indicators of roughed-in skills. My personal favorite is watching where potential hires park their vehicle when they come to the jobsite for the first time. Most residential jobsites are tight on space, and a good lead always has an efficiency hierarchy in mind when it comes to the jobsite parking lot. Any of these examples will exhibit a level of pre-roughed-in skill that increases the likelihood of the candidate being successful in the long term.

Being on time for an interview and showing up dressed for and ready to work are good indicators of roughed-in skills. My personal favorite is watching where potential hires park their vehicle when they come to the jobsite for the first time.

Active Rough-In

The important rough-in skills that I look to impart onto a new tradesperson fall into both the neck-up and neck-down categories. In Part 2 (“The Framework”) of this series, I discussed how critical these initial skills are in moving new workers past day zero and setting them up to gain confidence. Since we rarely arm a novice immediately with power tools, I will start with a rundown of the neck-up skills that I have found to be the most beneficial to the worker, the job, and the company.

Measuring. The humble tape measure is a tool that is of such importance to the building trades that many of us own dozens of them that we favor for specific uses. But this tool also confounds and confuses even the most experienced tradesperson from time to time. In terms of general use, I have found a common roadblock is around understanding fractions and what they mean. Learning that 1/2 = 2/4 = 4/8 = 8/16 goes a long way toward making sense of “the little lines” and, most importantly, illustrates the basics of performing math with fractions.

It’s also important to understand that a measuring device, be it tape, stick, wheel, or laser, is only a reference. The measured length of something is directly proportional to the tool used to take the measurement. Measure a stud with two tapes and depending on your tolerance, you will likely get two different measurements.

Seeing. The ability to quantify something through measurement is enhanced by learning how to see. The majority of the work we do in residential construction can be broken down into a series of squares and triangles. Once a young tradesperson can see both a stair stringer and a common rafter as the hypotenuse of a triangle, they can use their measuring skills to apply the simple geometry needed to think through simple layout tasks.

From the all-important 3-4-5 triangle to bisecting angles and lines to finding the center of a circle, the ability to see the underlying geometry of our work as builders is a fundamental skill that can unlock high-level skills early in a novice’s career when it is mated with working knowledge of measuring tools and the ability to draw.

Drawing. In the field, we rely on drawings to inform us and interpret the intent of the designer or architect. Drawing at full scale on the jobsite, usually on a plywood cutoff, is an important skill that is the bridge between seeing and measuring and producing work. Many talented craftspeople believe that they lack the artistic talent to draw. But drawing a detail on the job is less about art and more about harnessing an ability to see and measure. Understanding how to draw at full scale is key to executing complex details. Everything is complex to the beginner. Drawing at full scale works to remove that complexity and sets a novice up to understand a set of plans.

Tool use. As we move to neck-down skills, I want to highlight the principle of “the tool is an extension of you,” as it is one of the most important concepts that I have learned in my career as a tradesman. Neurologists studying tool use in primates and humans have found that, even after short periods of tool use, the tool is incorporated into the brain’s representation of the body (body schema) in the surrounding space (peripersonal space). The ability to swing a hammer and strike your target is possible because of the connection between hand–eye coordination and body schema.

Many of the tools that we use every day can be confusing and dangerous to a novice. Knowing that the majority of tools we use are designed to work within our body’s natural range of motion informs every step taken to execute a task with the tool by the user—if using the tool is physically uncomfortable, you are probably using it wrong. As a novice builds experience in using hand and power tools correctly, the brain begins to add the tool to the body schema.

Tolerances. One of the most challenging things to convey to a novice tradesperson about the carpentry trade is what level of tolerance is appropriate for the task at hand. There are a number of ways to do this, but I begin with how to strike a line by pencil or knife, emphasizing that this line, be it on wood, concrete, or drywall, sets a foundation for tolerance and provides a basis for communication. Lines have width and depth in addition to length. Something as simple as striking a line is an important skill of its own, but it has a more important role: It sets a standard of tolerance.

Building is challenging, but motivating and engaging individuals with a foundation of basic roughed-in skills needed for building is even more challenging. This is a primary goal for a successful building company. In the next article, I will speak to the requirements of the other points of the triangle: the company and the crew members themselves.