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Making a Superintendent: Nature vs. Nurture
Are great site superintendents born or made? Many building firms now hire based on character; not experience.
Good site superintendents can make or break a building company. They must navigate the fragile firewall that separates the trades from the customer, jumping back and forth between dual roles. Katherine Salant, author of "The Brand-New House Book," describes those roles as "drill sergeant and mother hen."
The description aptly lays the expectations for such a job candidate as well. "We're looking for somebody who can move into a project manager role in a reasonable length of time," notes Rich Warfield, human resources manager for Carl M. Freeman Communities in Selbyville, Del. "We're not looking as much for hammer and nail guys but people with a philosophy of management, and we're getting more people of that mind set."
Warfield is not alone in his "management first" criteria for landing high-caliber superintendents. But those criteria mark a break with the accepted norms of the past.
"At one time, the guy who became a super used to be a framer or somebody who came up through the trades," notes Steve McGee of Unify International, a consulting firm in Santa Ana, Calif. "Now, you may be looking for a manager, but you still want somebody who truly believes that working with your hands is an honorable job and deserves good leadership and good scheduling — like a sergeant who is intent on keeping his guys alive — helping them make the most money they can under the best conditions."
With so much riding on the skills of superintendents, builders now use more elaborate screening techniques in their hiring process. Blame it on the hectic pace of production building. Blame it on changes in the job description. Blame it on legal risk. Whatever the reason, today's superintendents face even higher expectations.
Peter Orser, president of Quadrant Homes in Bellevue, Wash., says he looks for "character" in new superintendent applicants.
"What we did for a while was try to hire experienced supers, and that didn't work," he recalls. "You really can't teach an old dog new tricks."
The company now aims to hire employees who understand working with a customer, Orser says, which has improved focus on a disciplined process. To make that happen, Quadrant has created what he refers to as a superintendent university.
"We've got several hundred people crawling a site in any given day; that's a lot of responsibility," he says. "What happened was that when we went to even-flow construction, it allowed us to think about our people-side differently. Now we're hiring more for character than construction ability."
Orser notes he is careful to distinguish personality from character and seeks certain traits in new employees.
"One trait we like is competitiveness. By that, I mean a fierce will to achieve and accomplish things, but not a 'let's grind the competition into the ground' mentality.
"We still want diversity of thought," he adds. "I don't want a bunch of people walking around here who act just like me. Of course, not every idea is a good one, but [employees] need to feel like they're being heard."
How do you accurately measure the mettle of a potential employee? Orser doesn't leave that process to chance.
"We took 17 of our managers who do the most hiring and we put them through interview skills training," he says. "They learn not to give the [applicant] the answer in the question. They also learn that if the person is talking in generalities, you can ask for specific examples of how they used their people skills to solve a difficult situation. We try to get them to go deeper, to ask 'what words did you use in a certain situation?' for example.
"It's about probing and not judging the book by its cover," he adds. "We've learned that sometimes the person who's most expressive may be the biggest bull-shi----. We're looking for certain qualities — competitiveness, commitment, coachability and a little humility."
To that end, Orser says, many of his latest superintendent hires have come out of management jobs in other industries, with no hands-on construction background.
"We've hired some people out of Eddie Bauer, plus warehouse management and customer service," he says. "They tend to be focused on a disciplined process; they recognize the value of the process and have some notion of customer service.
"Our supers have to take four important walks with a customer," Orser continues, "and buying a house is stressful. They need to still recognize that the customer is king."
Some experts argue that overemphasis on an applicant's psychology might neglect critical traditional skills. No matter how much the back office environment changes, knowledge of how a home is built is essential to the job.
"There's an emphasis now on hiring college graduates based on character and then training them," notes Steve McGee. "But there are divergent views about that practice.
"The problem is that many of these hired grads view the site superintendent job as a stepping stone," he continues. "They want to hang around for six months to learn the ropes, then become the president of the company."
Another issue, McGee says, is that supers without some years in the field may lack the 'street cred' needed to manage trades.
"There's a risk that a lot of them coming straight out of college — sometimes called the 'pink hands people' — they don't respect what it takes to work a job site all day long. So the trades don't work effectively with them."
The reason, he says, that the "salty dogs" of construction, such as framing crew managers, often lack subtlety is that they have never had any formal training.
The industry simply hasn't worked that way. The problem, he says, often stems from their experience as assistant superintendents.
"Unfortunately, a lot of site superintendents today are desk jockeys who spend all their time dealing with the option nightmare," McGee explains. "As a result, they send these assistants out into the field to manage everything else. But the assistants are green. They have no hard training. So right away, they develop bad habits."
Which brings him to his pitch: training is essential after the hire no matter what a superintendent's background, and remedial training is almost always in order — and should be an ongoing expectation.
Fred Humphreys directs the Washington, D.C.-based Home Builders Institute, an affiliate of the NAHB's workforce arm.
"We talked to builders around the country and asked them what areas of knowledge they expect supers to have." Humphreys says. "What we found is that the project manager or superintendent is becoming more professionalized, whether it's dealing with OSHA safety regulations, budgets or codes."
Humphreys says that most of the big production builders are recruiting heavily from two- and four-year construction management programs, but these new employees typically have some gaps in their skill sets.
The HBI Residential Construction Superintendent Designation, like the training offered by Unify International, is a supplemental program almost always taken by superintendents who are already on the job — not would-be applicants.
"The demographics really run the gamut, from those just out of college to the super who has been on the job 30 or 40 years," notes Joe Krinoch, also of HBI. He adds that not every builder uses the same title to describe site superintendents. Beazer Homes, for example, calls them assistant builders.
Humphreys notes that when J.D. Power and Associates ranks various factors of customer satisfaction, customer management — the core of a site supervisor's job — ranks near the top of home buyer concerns. And it's a skill that can be learned.
Tuition for the eight modules of the HBI superintendent program runs about $1,200. But Krinoch says builders can see tangible returns on that cost right away.
"There's definitely a market advantage," he says. "D.R. Horton has sent 63 of their people through the program."
To date, HBI has graduated about 800 students from the RCS program, and another 4,000 have entered the course pipeline. The institute will soon offer an advanced level of training for graduates of the first program.
Unify International also offers superintendent training. McGee says the difference between Unify's program and HBI is the amount of in-the-field training. He says his company tends to spend more "hands-on" time at job sites rather than in the classroom.
He shares HBI's assertion that the payback for builders is significant.
"We can show you statistically what the financial difference is," he says. "Right away, you can see savings on cycle time, variance cost and many other intangibles."
How do superintendents feel about attention to their attitude, their knowledge and their training?
Dave Mullineaux, site superintendent with Carl M. Freeman Communities in Delaware, recalls answering "the normal" questions. "They were looking for motivated people, people with common sense and management skills," he says.
Mullineaux notes important factors to staying with the company.
"They have a direction," he says, "and they treat you with respect. The benefits are good, and they're keen on the product they produce, which is very important to the customers.
"Of course," he adds, "Compensation is still a huge factor. This company is probably in the top percentile in terms of pay."
Larry Kuwamara, a project manager for Michael Sivage Homes and Communities in San Antonio, Texas, has been taking the HBI's RCS training program. His only complaint: "There's a big gap between courses in San Antonio. The last one I took was in April, and the next one is in July."
Kuwamara says the courses he has had so far have shaken loose a lot of misconceptions.
"The hiring course was really mind blowing," he recalls. "There were things we were doing that we thought were appropriate that ... well, there are things you can ask in an interview and things you can't. You have to be very careful to word things and conduct a proper interview.
"The customer service part of it was good, too," he says. "Sometimes you get in a situation where a homeowner is already upset, and you learn how to deal with that."
Other lessons applied to his dealings with subcontractors. "We learned that there's a correct terminology to use when dealing with subs. In fact, we don't call them subcontractors any more. That makes them feel inferior. Instead, you call them your partners, because that's really what they are."
So far the training has affected the company across the board. "From scheduling to interviewing, there's just a lot of things that cut time out of your schedule — skills that allow you to manage your time and your job better," Kuwamara says.
Peter Orser of Quadrant Homes adds that at the end of the day, superintendents stick with a company that allows them to take pride in their work.
"Our guy may not be painting or gluing or putting things together on the job," Orser says, "but he's proud of what he delivers on day 54. This is a new kind of craftsman, a craftsman who sees the big picture who is really involved in the vision of building more house than our customer dreamed possible.
"We're not asking people to become automatons," he adds. "They own that job site. It's about the process, and they understand that. That's what makes a great superintendent."