Make the Most of Contractors

Using hired help effectively starts by treating them as part of your team.

By Dirk Willard, contributing editor

“I won’t talk to you, who’s your boss?” she said nonchalantly. “I work for Ken,” I replied. I felt stupid but I had to ask, “So, who should I talk to?” “Talk to my contractor,” she said rudely. I thought, “Here’s a young engineer, fresh out of college, who could benefit from my years of experience but instead she feels superior just because I’m a contractor.” After a few phone calls, I talked to her “contractor,” a smart, very affable mechanical engineer. Together, we worked out the problem and then went back to her. She wasn’t even remotely interested in our solution and gave it rubber-stamp approval.

At the same company, a vendor invited all the engineers at a site to a demonstration. Nine out of 10 of them were contractors. This isn’t that surprising — many firms have more contractors than employees. In the late 1970s companies realized that engineers are mostly hired for projects. Contractors nicely fill these temporary roles.

My experience with the young engineer isn’t unusual. A good friend of mine was hired once as a reliability technician. One Friday he was pressured to ignore a corrosion problem that posed a serious risk to health and the environment. “You can put it off until the turnaround next week — right?” When the production superintendent asks that question and you’re just a contractor, your answer had better be: “Yes, I guess so.” When my friend arrived Monday, he found his stuff in a box at the security gate. The human resource manager explained at his exit interview that the tee he had fretted about had leaked chlorine gas Sunday night. It did no good to complain. My friend was a contractor. He took his box and moved on. The company lost a reliable, sharp and honest technician.

In another incident, neglect was the problem. Radios always are in short supply in a chemical plant. Contractors are the last to receive them. At this facility, parking also was scarce. Parking assignments were changed. A warning to move cars to avoid towing went out over the radio. Dozens of cars were towed; most of them were contractors’— leaving many contractors with little alternative other than a 4 a.m. taxi ride.

Your most valuable resource is your workers. Keeping them happy will bring you closer to your goals. During an expansion project at a small plant I hired welders from a temporary agency; I inherited the under-budgeted project during a corporate takeover. After being forced to fire two welders, I had two keepers. The first was John, a welder extraordinaire. He was a cranky know-it-all but he taught me more than I like to admit. The other was Steve, who was young and inexperienced.

We needed a food-grade finish. This was yet another oversight by the previous project manager.

Steve wore a dust mask; I would have used full oxygen if I could have gotten approval for it. He worked a grinder eight hours a day inside a cramped storage tank in 90° heat. These were the worst conditions I’ve ever seen in nearly 30 years in engineering. I told John, “If he doesn’t quit by the end of the week, tell Steve he’s on for the duration of the project.” Steve had grit. He stuck it out.

I went to bat for these guys whenever there was even a whiff of discrimination. I threatened to suspend one of my best operators for giving them a hard time about using our lunch room. When a foreman interfered with a tie-in, I refereed the encounter and sent the foreman to the plant manager when he complained.

I gave them extra maintenance assignments, introduced them to everyone, and let John manage the construction while I was busy. Steve, a recent army vet, was thirsty to learn more about welding and construction. John was a natural teacher.

I went to the plant manager, Bob, and told him I needed a foreman so I could manage maintenance and production; this and other capital projects were killing me. Bob turned me down flat. I looked him dead in the eye and said without emotion, “Then, have a good time completing the expansion. I quit.” I was done when I finished the projects anyway and I knew it. I headed for the door but Bob stopped me. He was new to the facility and, with everyone gone after the takeover, I held the aces. So, he agreed. I offered John a significant raise to become foreman — with the stipulation that he teach Steve everything he wanted to learn. The young welder eagerly soaked up knowledge that readily flowed from the veteran craftsman. It was a joy to watch. After I left the company, I heard that both found permanent positions there.

Dirk Willard, contributing editor for Chemical Processing. You can e-mail him at