Create an Engaging Job Site Environment Every Time

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With spring break for colleges and high schools just around the corner, the season of volunteerism on Christian Appalachian Project’s home repair job sites is close to getting started. People of all ages will soon filter into the Eastern Kentucky hills hoping to make a lasting difference in someone’s life. Many of these willing souls are anxious to experience for the first time what it’s like to build something out of lumber, install a new window, or even tear off roofing shingles and replace them with new ones. 

These volunteers may arrive with a mix of excitement and apprehension if they have never been exposed to the activities found in a construction setting. They are thrilled to have the opportunity to actively meet someone’s housing need. At the same time, they may feel uncomfortable about risking embarrassment due to their lack of skills and knowledge in this environment. 

Following are a few key points to remember for leading unskilled volunteers on an experience that is safe, productive, engaging, and all-around satisfying.

Select suitable tasks for unskilled personnel.

Given the fact that many volunteers serve on a job site only one to five days per each service trip, the tasks selected for their experience should be straight forward and repetitive. These include installations of vinyl siding, laminate flooring, decking, roofing shingles, metal roofing, new construction windows, insulation, and laborious jobs such as demolition, ditch-digging, and post-hole digging. 

Preparation is key regarding appropriate tools, building materials, and a construction plan.

Prior to the arrival of the volunteers, the Construction Site Crew Leader (CL) should closely inspect the project and determine the list of repairs the volunteers will focus their efforts on. The inspection should include observations of potential hazards, along with plans to eliminate them and safeguard against any and all accidents. A list should be made of enough tools, supplies, Personal Protective equipment (PPE), and materials to equip each crew member for a highly productive time of service. Finally, be prepared for uncooperative weather. When rain tries to wash away all your productivity, consider setting up a canopy outside to facilitate a work station for tasks such as such as sawing or hand railing assembly. If possible, move the crew inside to tackle projects such as flooring, drywall, door replacements, trim work, or painting.

Focus on the reasons why rather than how the work must be done.

When the CL first meets with the crew to discuss the project, she shares the owner’s concerns with the home’s substandard conditions, such as; “the roof leaks on the rotting floor and I’m afraid my disabled mother may fall through” or “my child does not bring friends home because she is embarrassed at the exterior siding that is broken and falling down.” From this point forward, the crew member’s efforts are driven by creating improved conditions for the owners they are serving. This encourages the crew to focus on compassion rather than how well they perform construction techniques which are new to them. 

Always start with safety training.

This training session may take one to three hours to complete but is important as it prevents accidents and allows crew members to get acclimated to the feel and sound of tools in a controlled setting. Items that should be covered include the proper use of:
1) PPE
2) power tools that will be used on the job
3) hand tools, and
4) ladders and fall prevention systems (if required by the job).

Strive to keep all crew members always engaged.

Divide volunteers into crews that may range from 2 to 6 members per one skilled (or semi-skilled) leader, depending on the availability of skilled volunteers. Ideally, skilled leaders will possess technical know-how, great interpersonal skills, and passion for construction. Yet, the most important quality would be the ability to effectively lead by thoroughly instructing, encouraging, and mentoring their crew members. The construction outcomes produced by the volunteer crew are not likely to achieve a level equal to that of a master builder crew. Yet, by setting purpose as the priority rather than performance, the crew is encouraged to relax and apply the lessons and techniques learned as they develop skills and confidence.

Express gratitude and encouragement.

Crew leaders should consistently encourage crew members while they serve and share appreciation for the gift of their time and efforts. It is beneficial for leaders throughout the week to look each crew member in the eyes and speak positive words of support. This fosters trust, commitment, and a spirit of teamwork that is contagiously uplifting. It results in a desire within the volunteers to return and serve at a later date.

It’s not easy but it is gratifying.

The business of leading unskilled volunteers on a construction job site is both complex and rewarding. Success in this field is certainly not something boiled down in a piece of writing that can be read more quickly than mixing a bag of concrete. Yet if the aforementioned principles are applied, chances are good these interactions and experiences will create a win-win outcome for everyone involved.

Mike Wallace is the Cumberland Valley Housing Manager for Christian Appalachian Project in Kentucky. He is an avid Cincinnati Reds fan and enjoys hiking and reading.