The right tool for the job depends on you… and if you can use it as a hammer

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“The right tool for the job.” It’s a saying that my father used quite a bit.

It’s a saying, “the right tool for the job,” that’s so popular it’s been co-opted by other, non-trade industries, but I never fully appreciated it until recently.

From experience, I’ve learned it basically means “If you have the correct tool for the job, you probably won’t ruin things, and you’ll curse much less.” For my decades of putting tools to the test, it all comes down to one thing… can I use it as a hammer?

Of course, by that I mean, “Which tool will be the highest quality, most durable and the best bang for my buck?” But also, I’m probably going to use it as a hammer eventually, either because of frustration, rage or pure necessity. There are so many places to find yourself the perfect pipe wrench, drill press, or miter saw for whatever job you’re tackling, that it’s mind-boggling to think about. I’ve narrowed it down to 3 categories to help you decide not what tool is best, but what tool is best for you.

Homeowner tools

Congratulations, you just bought a house! You’ll need tools for up-keep, and repairs. Just go Craftsman, hit up Sears, or find a nice K-mart special-30 piece tool set. That’s all you really need. No need to spend a Corvette’s worth in tools for light-bulb fixtures and table leg repairs. Done.

DIY / hobbyist / garage-r tools

You’re a serious DIYer. You need a quality tool for the job but you don’t need the best tool on the market. I’ve worked on my car since I Corey's Dad-Tool Box purchased it at 14 using whatever tools my dad had. They usually weren’t the best quality, but I still use some of them to this day. Go Craftsman for hand tools or better. Their wrenches, pliers and hammers are perfect for everyone from the weekend track racer to the most Ron Swanson of us all. The higher initial price is out-weighed by the lifetime use of the tool. Just check for the warranty so you can replace it if necessary.

Full-time trade and craftsman tools

If you make a living off your tools, you’re going to want something that will pay for itself over the years. You need power, precision, and durability. The hands down consensus is that if you want the best tool that’ll last a lifetime, you want Snap-on.  If your company is paying, or if you can afford it, Snap-on is the best bang for your buck for any dedicated, daily wrench jockey. They have consistently beat any challenger for best in the business. If that isn’t a possibility, brands like SK, GearWrench, Matco Tools and Mac Tools offer replacements with warranties that are just as good with only a minor sacrifice in strength and durability.

Still not sure which tool is right for you? Start simple and build up from there. You may find that, most of the time, you need the basics but for a few specific jobs, it’s worth investing in the right tools. Like my dad always said, “The right tool… “

Helical Screw Pile Technology for Contractors

Deep earth solutions for contractors

Adapting to advances in technology can sometimes be a drag. Learning new software, purchasing new tools, updating procedures due to regulation; sometimes it’s a hassle. For contractors though, there are some products and advancements simply too good to ignore, and one of those today is helical screw pile systems.

Although screw pile systems have been around since the 1800’s, installation methods have become much easier. Advancements now allow for helical screw piles to be used for a variety of applications, both large and small.

To be brief, helical piles are steel shafts with helix shaped bearing plates. They are generally used for deep earth foundation applications, providing structural support as either piers or as tension anchors. There are numerous types of plates, shapes, sizes and designs available, each made for specific applications depending on the integrity of the soil and the weight or tension the helical pile is meant to support.

Uses for helical screw pile systems

One popular use for helical piles is as piers under porches, decks or small additions. Traditionally, holes are dug by hand or with excavators and concrete is mixed and poured into a tube. Afterwards there is still a cleanup involved, not to mention the curing and drying process of the concrete. This all equals a lot of man hours, perhaps a couple days, especially if there are 10+ piers to install. Now imagine finishing all this by lunch and construction above beginning immediately. With no waiting for concrete to dry or inspectors to ensure your holes are a minimum of 4’ deep, helical piles are an incredible time saver. Not to mention less labor intensive. Your back muscles will thank you, or at least your crews will.

Helical screw pile post installed under a porch.

Helical screw pile post installed under a porch.

In addition to saving contractors time, the steel shaft pier will also be a blessing for the property owner. Take a look at some concrete piers and you will notice some have heaved, many have settled and others are simply crumbling away. These are now problems of the past, as helical piles are installed at depths based on soil conditions. When installed correctly, there is little chance the shafts will ever settle or heave. This means one less repair to consider in the future. Another plus; helical piles can be installed year-round whether there is frost or soggy, wet soil. Again, crews will be grateful.

Helical screw pile attached to wood post

Helical screw piles easily attach to pressure treated posts, both 4×4 and 6×6

Contractors also use helical screw pile systems for docks and walkways in marinas, on lake shores, or for bridges in parks and golf courses. Green thumbs will love it too, as little or no earth is displaced and there is minimal impact on the environment.

Stabilizing foundations

As mentioned, there are several applications for helical screw pile systems, the pier/post being just one of them. More heavy duty push piers (not always with a helical plate affixed to them) can be used for stabilizing, or even raising, settled buildings. Push piers save property owners from having to completely replace failing foundations due to settling. Likewise, for new construction, helical piers can be installed under slabs or footings to ensure homes or buildings will never settle. This can be especially important in places known for having problematic soils, such as in areas over old landfills or near high water tables.

Push pier under foundation footing

Push pier under foundation footing

It’s worth noting special equipment is needed to install helical screw pile systems. Bobcat’s or Kubota’s of various sizes can be used, fixed with unique driver heads available for purchase from the manufacturer of the steel shafts. For contractors to get outfitted for installing piers with a machine, trailer and fixture, starting costs will range from $35,000 – $50,000. When choosing a machine, keep in mind how much force may be needed to drive in the screw piles, and also maneuverability on job sites. Depending on how many piers a contractor installs, they can expect to gain the monetary benefits of their investment within a year or two. As mentioned though, the benefits of saving time will be felt immediately.

For the push pier systems, a maneuverable hydraulic pump set up is used for applications. No real heavy machinery is required, and sometimes installations will take place from within the basement rather than from the exterior. Though not required, engineers will sometimes be involved with these systems, which will effect overall costs for property owners. However, when it comes to saving an investment such as a home or property, it is almost always worth the costs.

Bobcat attachment for helical pile installation

Bobcat attachment for helical pile installation

So for contractors who may be weary of trying new things in the field, just know that while you’re mixing your 16th bag of concrete, another contractor using helical piles has already begun installing their floor joists. Sometimes, change is good.

Launching a career as a telecommunications technician

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What is a Telecommunications Technician?

Many have heard of the telecommunications industry, but what does a telecommunications technician do for a living?  A telecommunications technician can wear many different hats.  This type of person works on construction sites pulling cable for data drops, mounts cameras, and installs access control for card readers.  Others in this field work from cellular phone towers or route and terminate fiber optics cabling.  Some may work for local phone, internet, and cable television providers, showing up at your home for installations throughout the day.

Telecommunications technician training

Training opportunities in the telecommunications industry are widely available for those who know where to look.  Both union and nonunion electrical contractors offer a combination of excellent on-the-job training and instructional classroom education for new employees looking for a career in the trades.  Apprenticeships through local area contractors typically range from three to five years depending on the diversity of training before earning the journeyman title.  Technicians who have success working in the field will eventually find themselves in supervisory and management positions, thus providing numerous chances to further their career.

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Find a local contractor

There’s a multitude of places to look for employment within the telecommunications industry.  A person doesn’t have to have years of experience to land a job in this field.  The first place a job seeker can visit is their local electrical contractor.  These contractors are in the business of building homes, offices, and high-rises for their clients and are often looking for entry level help.  An easy way of locating these contractors is by calling your union hall, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), and asking for a list of electrical contractors in your area.

Network to learn more

You can also talk with other professionals working within the telecommunications industry via online forums, social media websites and live chat rooms.  Often there’s no better advice about where to find a job in a particular industry than the advice given from a journeyman technician.  Getting to know people currently working in the career you’re pursuing will always be of value to you.  Also, there’s a wealth of information standing behind a Google query.  Be curious and look around online. You will be surprised what you can find.

The telecommunications industry is an excellent field for trade workers who value the ever-changing landscapes of computers and technology.

Working with Trade Schools in Construction

Being able to find qualified talent in the local workforce is what every small business in the trade’s industry wishes they could do more easily. As the talent pool of workers seems to be gradually drying up in the New Hampshire area, contractors, plumbers, and electricians (to name just a few) are finding themselves in new territory. Not only are these businesses and tradesmen bidding for jobs and competing for contracts, but they are now also in fierce competition over attracting top candidates to join their companies.

With the housing market continuing to recover and homeowners throughout the region looking to update their homes, businesses are doing all they can to keep up with the demand whilst struggling to fill in the ranks of their company.

The Next Generation of the Construction Industry

Instead of passing the storm complacently and waiting for the labor shortage issue to correct itself, there are steps towards improvement to be taken, one big stride being to reach out to the younger generation within the community.

This presents a two-way street, each direction holding equal importance. Keeping the youth interested in the trades; and likewise, keeping the trades industry interested in being more hands-on in developing the youth into a viable workforce.

And so what’s the best way to reach out to the younger generation and introduce them to the trade industry within their community?

Some NH Vocational Schools for Construction

There are a number of vocational high schools throughout New Hampshire, offering courses from heavy duty mechanics to the building trades, and from basic woodworking to electrical engineering. These public schools have been providing such courses for years now, and with current circumstances being as they are, it’s time local businesses start taking more interest.

In southern New Hampshire, both Alvirne High School and Pinkerton Academy have exceptional vocational centers, and for students in the greater Manchester area there is the Manchester School of Technology, to name just a few.

Getting Involved with Local Schools

So where to start? Perhaps with a little research and outreach.

Not every vocational school offers the same courses. Finding out the specifics of each school can be done via their websites. Or take it one step further by reaching out to their respective directors and teachers. Inquire about the number of students they have enrolled in their courses, what challenges they face in developing their programs or students, and are they in need of any resources. Are they in need of tools or equipment? Do they follow industry trends?

Perhaps it’s also a good idea to inquire about being a guest speaker of sorts, introducing the latest technology used in the field or presenting them with case studies and asking for input from the students on how to address a real life issue. It would also be a good idea to reach out to other local businesses in the area and get them involved, providing the students with a variety of resources and options.

The overall goal with reaching out to local vocational schools and students should be to peak their interest, keep them motivated, and assure them there are plenty of exceptional, well-paying, challenging jobs waiting for the right candidates to emerge and take them. In an industry which is struggling to find qualified candidates, reaching out and taking the initiative is a much needed step in the right direction.

 

Trades Networking: Pounding the Pavement Still Has Merit

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While the trades industry is most definitely evolving into a more accessible and technology-centered organism, at the same time it is still undeniably rooted in the tactile and “hands-on” approach that has been passed down through generations.

Though there is much to be gained by familiarizing yourself with the online trades world, and seemingly limitless avenues to pursue once you learn to navigate the channels and resources available, you simply cannot overlook the fundamental value of that good old-fashioned hand shake. Because the trades industry is one of constant change with a wide range of participants, projects can be extremely diverse and stretch out over long periods of time.

As we all know, construction is done in stages; this means that, depending on your trade, there are various stages where you can visit a job site in person to make introductions, hand out your company information, and hopefully do some networking, for both that particular project as well as potential future projects.

One of the best things about the construction industry is that projects are often hard to miss, particularly new residential construction and commercial tenant improvements. Are you a flooring installer?  Do you see a new home going up with a sign on the perimeter fence identifying the general contractor?  Are they only in the framing stages?  Go to the site and introduce yourself.

Take a walk through your local shopping center, and you will likely find at least one retail store with a hoarding in front of its doors, and construction going on behind them. Check out the job site and find out who is in charge, and ask questions.

Have they secured a company for your particular trade yet and if so does that group need an extra hand with this or other projects?  Is this store a chain that’s renovating multiple locations in succession?

Many of these projects are in constant flux because of budget and design evolution. Clients increase budgets, change their minds, run into problems along the way (oops- we didn’t know we had dry rot behind the sink…now we don’t just need a plumber we need a drywall restoration company), and thus create many opportunities for you to get your business card in the mix.

Don’t underestimate the value of your presence and an in-person handshake.  You may not always find immediate work from these impromptu site visits, but you will have broadened your client network and potentially set yourself up for projects in the future.

So, grab a stack of business cards and get out there!  Best of luck!

Back office basics for construction – 10 Ways to Cut the Costs of your Construction Business Purchases

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How does your construction business purchasing measure up? Whether you’re buying tools, equipment, supplies, materials or even hiring subcontractors – are you planning those purchases as well as you could?  

When it comes to running a construction business efficiently, purchasing is often overlooked, particularly in businesses where purchasing tasks are handled by several employees. As a result, you may find that you are spending too much money on low-quality products or with suppliers who don’t exactly have the best customer service. Purchasing is a profession like any other – it is better handled by professionals. So if you’d never dreamed of letting someone unprofessional or inexperienced build a building or even weld, why should you treat purchasing differently?

So what measures can you take to reign in your spending and put some controls around the purchasing process? Here are 10 tips to consider.

1.     Separate your Personal and Business Banking

If you are purchasing anything for your business, first open a business bank account and apply for a business credit card. Here’s why:

1)     If you start intermingling personal and business credit, you negate any protection that being a Limited Liability Company (LLC) can afford. A business credit card, used solely for business purchases and expenses, can eliminate this risk as long as it isn’t backed by a personal guarantee.

2)     The IRS requires that income and tax deductions for business and personal transactions are kept separate. A business bank account can help with this, while a business credit card can make for easier record keeping because they break down expenses by category.

3)     Credit cards are also an effective tool for building business credit, which will help you to get better deals with banks and lenders.

2.     Establish a Formal Purchasing Policy

Now, you may not have a need or even the budget to staff up a purchasing team, but it’s a good idea to lay the foundations of a formal purchasing policy – one that defines your desired quality standards, delivery times, volumes, and price points.

Think about the following factors as you define your procurement policy:

  • Who has authority to purchase? What can they buy and are there any spending limitations?
  • How you select your suppliers? Do you factor quality, shipping times/costs, place of delivery, etc.?
  • How many quotes do you seek before selecting a supplier or subcontractor?
  • Do you enter into formal supplier contract arrangements? What are the acceptable terms?
  • Do you have a process for quality control? What happens when you get defective materials?
  • How often you evaluate supplier performance (if you don’t it’s a good idea to do so)?

3.     Appoint a Go-To Purchasing Function

As a business owner you can only wear so many hats, so consider passing the procurement reins to someone else on your team who can take on this function in addition to their other duties. In this role they will not only place orders, but ensure that your purchasing policies are adhered to, be responsible for supplier selection and management, inventory, quality control, and payment processing.

4.     Get a Grip on Inventory Management

Inventory tracking is a great tool to cut costs. It will help you avoiding buying materials you don’t need for your coming jobs, and ensuring you’re not losing time (and spending money) waiting for materials you forgot to order. There are many simple online ordering systems that can help you monitor and manage inventory, sales and shipping lines – automating as much as possible can give you visibility into your business, improve cash management, help with inventory control, and ultimately, enhance profitability.

5.     Keep Track of Orders

This is where the purchase order (PO) comes into play. Once you’ve agreed on a price with a supplier, filing up a PO (a formal request to a supplier to go ahead and deliver materials at an agreed price and terms) will help you stay on top of your purchases when they are delivered and invoiced. Cross check items that arrive with your PO, and again when the invoice arrives. This is the time to spot check quality and quantity.

6.     Negotiate Contracts for Quantity Discounts

If you are making repeat purchases from a supplier, use a contract instead of a PO. You may be able to negotiate quantity discounts or simply streamline the process of ordering recurring items. You’ll save time, money, and you’ll still be invoiced on a monthly basis.

7.     Keep an Eye on Market Fluctuations when Making Purchases

It’s likely that market prices for purchases are going to fluctuate. Take advantage of declining prices, liquidations and discounts on bulk purchases to lower your costs. If you don’t have the cash for this – try negotiating payment plans or even consider borrowing. Many times your borrowing costs will be much lower than the discounts you receive when buying in bulk.

8.     Going Beyond Price, Establish a Good Basis for Choosing a Supplier

Don’t just compare price among a short list of suppliers, be sure to dig deeper before you place an order. Look at their credit and payment terms. What about their reputation (do a little research or ask for customer references)? Likewise, don’t throw all your eggs in one basket, it’s very important to have at least one supplier “in reserve” who you can turn to if your preferred supplier lets you down. Having a few suppliers on your books will also put more pressure on your primary suppliers to add sweeteners such as discounts or better terms. Furthermore, working with several suppliers also gives you the opportunity to build good business credit. Finally, consider using marketplaces such as Specbid, Kinnek to get the best pricing you can get.

9.     How to Know When it’s Time to Hire Help

In the construction industry, purchases involve many time technical and industry-specific knowledge. Moreover, the quality of the goods you buy and sell determines the perceived quality of your company. So, if your company’s purchasing process has become too complex or it’s too much for you or team to handle, it may be time to hire a dedicated purchasing manager. Entrepreneur.com also recommends doing so if your business issues RFPs or RFQs (requests for proposals/quotations) when making purchases, negotiates contracts with each supplier, or needs a better grip of tracking supplier performance.

10.  Where to Find Specialist Help

If you can’t afford to hire a specialist, you can also call on the services of SCORE – a government-sponsored network of business mentors who specialize in helping businesses with business functions from sales and marketing to operations and finance. Alternatively, organizations such as the American Purchasing Society also offer consulting services to members in need of assistance with their purchasing processes.

What practices have you put in place to streamline your purchasing process? Share with the rest of us!

About Fundbox: Fundbox is a Technology company that is helps small businesses grow by managing their cash flow better and by overcoming short term cash flow gaps.

All Wood Is Not The Same

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I started working in Northern California about thirty years ago.The normal woods we use for everything are Western Douglas fir and Yellow Pine. These woods will hold any type of nail very well. But, when I moved to Texas twelve years later it was a completely different story.

Of all the problems that I anticipated using different types of wood their ability to hold a nail never occurred to me. Of course you would expect to have differences in wood strength. The old uniform building code has a very good section on the different types of wood and their structural abilities.

I do not remember seeing any reports on the ability of wood to hold a nail. I had my crew in Texas tack on some form boards with 8d sinkers. The next day many of the nails had slipped out about an inch. I could easily slip the nails back into place with my finger. I went down to the lumber yard and picked up a box of screw shank galvanized nails. When I have a problem with nails holding I always use the screw shank nail. Of course you can usually use screws. I say usually because on exterior finish work I do not like the look of screws.

For general framing you will need to use brights they seem to hold in all types of wood. Even galvanized nails, which are usually very good in most woods, did not do well in some of the midwestern woods. For gun nails use the gold tipped brands. Several companies make them and I have found they hold like screws in all types of wood. I had a problem in a home I was building in St. Louis Mo. the red tipped gun nails just slipped out. I pulled out the red tipped nails and used brights to replace them. From then on I have stuck to the gold tips with no problems.

It’s a different world outside the West Coast, especially when it comes to the trades. Wood types are often not stamped and the lumber yards may not even know what species of wood they are selling you. I have had to change from using solid wood headers to a laminate type for the certainty of structural strength. The east coast douglas fir bends like a rubber band I don’t recommend them for anything.

My advice for those of you who are working outside your normal area is to take nothing for granted and fluff your price as much as possible. If the job very tight cost wise just walk away. Better to lose a job than lose money on a job.

 

Photo courtesy of: Jesse Wagstaff

Safety Advances In Union Construction Make A Difference

Having worked as a concrete hand on high-rise buildings and with occasional stints in my youth as an iron worker, I remember being annoyed by the barrage of safety rules that union contractors started implementing twenty years ago. It seemed like a pretty big pain to wear all that extra safety gear, and I resented the hell out of it all.

I also remember carrying injured men on sheets of plywood and putting body parts in lunch boxes to rush them to the hospital alongside the broken remnants of a fellow worker, but it was still difficult in my youth to put the two together.

As insurance premiums have risen, large union contractors seem to have become obsessed with safety. Their projects are crawling with safety people. Some days, you can’t seem to get anything done because of safety rules, and for younger workers especially, it can be a source of major frustration.

Think of it from a union perspective however, and it is as if we have achieved a dream some forty years in the making. Since we stood together as workers and forced the government to enact OSHA in 1971, we have finally reached a day when workers are given all of the tools and training they need to ensure their survival. For the first time ever, we are told by contractors that we must wear all of the proper safety attire on a project. We are given the opportunity to not only refuse to perform unsafe work, but we are encouraged to stop work any time that there is even a question.

Today, on many projects, we’re even required to perform a pre-task evaluation of everything we do. It is the culmination of decades of advocacy and struggle. Countless men and women had to die on the job to reach a day when contractors pay us to stop, examine our work for the day, and view every step of it from the standpoint of safety.

If it all seems like a pain to an eager worker, then you’re not thinking about it from a union perspective, and you’re not remembering the thousands of workers who gave their lives and limbs to reach this era.

 

 

How to Get Hired in Construction

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Interviews for tradesmen on jobsites are usually about five minutes long. They might not consist of much, but there’s a lot more going on in that first exchange than you might think. The people who have worked the field and hired countless workers into the trades are looking for certain things in a new candidate. Aside from certain training or experience for particular jobs, here are the basics:

Firm Handshake – A construction manager recently told me, “I can tell whether a guy is going to be any good or not by his handshake. If it’s weak and frail and it feels like I’m shaking hands with my grandmother, I know he doesn’t have the gusto to work in the field.”

As silly as it may sound, men that work with their hands for a living are strong and proud and a simple thing like a firm handshake is often used to separate the men from the boys.

Dress – When you are trying to get that first job in construction, it’s not the time to show off your individuality, or display a t-shirt logo of your favorite band. Go looking like you’re ready to go to work, and look like the workers who are already out there.

Nothing says construction worker like a plaid flannel shirt, blue jeans and work boots. If you show up wearing sneakers and shorts and sporting fifty face piercings, you’re not going to be taken seriously. You can talk all you want about ‘keeping it real’ and ‘being unfairly judged’ but you’ll be doing it in the unemployment line. Pull your pants up, wear a belt, and remove your facial piercings. People who want to get hired show up looking like a worker who is ready to walk on the jobsite.

Attitude – A thirty year construction superintendent used to say this to me, “I’ll take attitude over experience every day.” That means you show up to every job like it is your first one, and work every day like it could be your last. There is nothing more irritating to experienced tradesmen than a young person who has worked a job or two acting like they are too good to do something, or thinking that they already know it all. If anything, you should downplay your experience while trying to express a genuine eagerness to learn.

As a foreman, the worst thing that a new guy could do was walk on the job and start telling me how much he knows and how good he is. Helping your uncle roof a garage once doesn’t make you a journeyman anything. Don’t tell me you’re great; show me, and keep on showing me every day. Anybody can show up and be a superstar for an hour. Tradesmen worth keeping are the ones who show up every single day, on time, until the job is done.

Work hard, show up on time, and treat everyone with respect. The trades are a funny thing and it’s a small world out there. The guy working beneath you one day might be the one calling you to work for him the next. The reward is that you’ll be working while guys with bad attitudes aren’t.

And finally, smile. Don’t ask me why. It just works, that’s all.

 

Photo courtesy of: International Organization for Immigration