If you have read my blog at all you will know that I have been in the commercial construction industry for over 15 years. One of our struggles – especially now – is finding a good superintendent to hire. So we need more people to become superintendents! First, I wanted to define what a construction superintendent is in the company I work for, W.E. O’Neil, as I have seen some guys come in saying they are superintendents, and they were obviously NOT a superintendent (how I, or most other GC’s define it). So, they were either straight up liars or maybe there is a different idea of what a construction superintendent is out there around the country?
Here is my definition of a construction superintendent:
A construction superintendent is an employee of a general contractor or construction management firm who is responsible and accountable for the successful onsite operations of a construction project. The main responsibilities of a construction superintendent include safety, schedule, coordination between the trades, and quality control.
Over the years I have seen superintendent come from a few different places so this post will detail out some of those “paths” that I have seen people take. If you are reading this, I am guessing you are looking to become a superintendent so I will try and lay out the number of years that I think it takes for each route. In general I have seen 3 paths to get there, and I have compiled what I would call the “super” (get it??) path to get there as quickly as possible.
Three Paths on How to Become a Construction Superintendent
1. Get a Construction Management Degree
2. Work in Construction
3. Go to the Military
1. Get a Construction Management Degree
I think that this route is becoming more and more popular for the younger generation of superintendents. “Going to College” feels like it’s what every parent is pushing their kid now and I am no “education” expert, but I agree that going to college after high school is certainly a great goal to have and a great path. I went to school for civil engineering so my track to construction was a little bit different than the construction management degree route but, a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering major will get you there too! Now, don’t expect to get a BS in CM or CE and then get hired straight out of college as a superintendent. There is another component to becoming a good superintendent: Experience!
Experience – Internships
The academic side is one thing but all of the guys and gals who are kicking butt in the superintendent role have real construction experience! When you look at Construction Management programs try and find ones that offer “internship” opportunities during the school year. If you have your heart set on a school and they don’t offer internships as part of the program, that is OK, but please do everything you can to get an internship during the summer! When I look at resumes for Field Engineers or Project Engineers (the first step to becoming a superintendent out of college, more on that later), the first thing I look for on their resume is EXPERIENCE. Most of the time that comes in the form of an internship! While you are going through school, even before or after your freshman year, start applying IMMEDIATELY in the fall for internships. I am not saying that I won’t hire a project engineer without any experience, but it certainly gives you an advantage from the other candidates. From my perspective, it doesn’t necessary make you a superstar to have 1 or 2 internships under your belt, but here is what it DOES mean:
- You can talk “construction” vocabulary. Know how to read plans? Know what a spec section is? Know what an RFI or submittal is? When I see someone has been through an internship then I know that you DO know all the introductory things, because you have been through an internship!
- You Like Construction. Construction is not for everybody. Some “kids” out of school pretend like they love construction but have never actually tried it. Some kids can’t tell me the difference between a construction management firm and an engineering firm in an interview (*cough*, that was me). If you have been through an internship I know that you are twice as likely to like construction and want to stick it out when I hire you as a full time employee after graduation. It’s not a guarantee that you will be able to stick it out but at least you had already tried construction for a few months and want to try it out again! That’s better than never trying and it turns into more of a “coin flip” on whether you are going to last!
Experience – Trades
If for whatever reason you are unable to get an internship or have other things going during your summers then go get field experience by joining the ranks of a subcontractor. This experience is almost more valuable than an internship because it means you can learn a new trade, be able to work with your hands, AND still learn all of the lingo and the culture of working on a construction jobsite. Especially if you aspire to become a superintendent. We have plenty of guys in our company who went up the ranks through the subcontractor community entirely so if any trades are out there who would hire you with no experience then please take advantage of it! I used to have a ceramics professor in college work as a carpenter during the summer because it kept him busy and it kept his handyman skills in good shape for when he needed them in his arts during the school year. During the summers our subcontractors rank up their workload HARD so as long as it’s a good economy you can bet that the framing companies, masons, or mechanical/electrical contractors are hiring!
Once you get “educated” and “experience” then those are the two key ingredients to getting a job with a general contractor. Here is the catch though: that will allow you to get hired on as a project engineer, not quite a super. You COULD get hired on as a super straight out of school but I haven’t met a lot of guys (or gals) who can go straight into construction as a superintendent without at least a few years’ worth of project engineer experience, and usually more like 5-10 years. If you want to become a superintendent usually you get hired as a project engineer and then try and get promoted as an assistant superintendent and then as a superintendent.
2. Work In Construction
This path to becoming a superintendent sounds simple, but it’s a lot of hard work. A lot of our experienced superintendents have gone this route and got to where they are because they have been able to work through the trades and continuously get promoted until they build a large enough toolkit of technical knowledge and people skills to be able to supervise an entire jobsite.
What exactly does the working in construction path look like?
Similar to the path above – you need to find a job, any job, with a subcontractor. Now, a lot of the guys that I work with who are superintendents have typically come up through the ranks on with a few major trades. Those include framing companies (studs, drywall), electrical, plumbing, or mechanical. You can do it with other trades but these are mainly the paths that I see when a person can make the “switch” from subcontractor to a superintendent with a general contractor. I don’t exactly know what the timeline or the path looks like but it’s probably something like you start as a laborer, then a rough carpenter, then a foreman, possibly a superintendent for a subcontractor, and then finally a superintendent for a general contractor. My guess is that this journey probably takes up to 10 years. Again, this path looks like the simplest at first but you really need to work hard to come up through the ranks and show that you have the ability to manage a lot of guys in the field in order to become a superintendent.
3. Go to the Military
I have never been in the military, so I will be the first to admit by saying “go to the military” I don’t exactly know how you should go to the military. Whether that is enlisting, going into ROTC, going into one of the military academies, national guard etc… I have no idea. Go to your local recruitment office and I am sure they can tell you all about it! All I know is when we hire guys or gals from any military, they tend to be rock stars as a superintendent. Now, I have heard (and seen on TV?) that military training drills discipline into everyone who goes through it so maybe people coming out of the military are good at most things because they were able to train up on discipline, teamwork, and everything that makes our military great. Either way I just know that when we have hired a superintendent or project engineer after they have performed their duty, they have their act together and they have worked well within our company.
So, going to the military is definitely an option for you to pursue if you want to become a construction superintendent. Now, this is just a guess, but I don’t think that there are a lot of people out there who are going to join the military with the end goal of becoming a superintendent after you serve your country. HOWEVER, if you just wrapped up your military career and now you are wondering what the heck you are going to do this is me telling you that you DEFINITELY have a leg up on others looking to become a construction superintendent so it’s worth looking into, heck give me a call! I think you will find that the organization and discipline you needed in the military – I won’t say it’s the SAME (again I have no idea) but it at least resembles what you went through. I think it’s a natural fit after seeing so many guys come to our company after being in the army, navy, or marines.
To Summarize the 3 Paths to Becoming a Construction Superintendent
Those 3 options: Go to School, Work in Construction, or Go Into the military are the three main paths I see. As we all know there are a million different ways to become a superintendent so if you make it another way please feel free to send a comment or send me an e-mail and let me know how you did it! The is more then one way to skin a cat and I know that there are a lot of superintendent bootcamps and superintendent introductory courses out there but at the end of the day experience trumps everything else so whatever path you take, try and get into the field as soon as possible. If you want to get there the fastest then try and maximize the amount of education and experience that you are getting. Sweeping a jobsite as a laborer will allow you to absorb construction knowledge by osmosis but if you are taking technical classes at night while you are sweeping during the day, you are going to learn construction a lot faster than by just working on jobsites. The more you understand the organization, the culture, and everything else that comes with construction the faster you can start making your way up to a superintendent position!