You Don't Have Enough People (and you never will)

Photo by Yogendra Singh / Unsplash

Managing construction projects is highly complex - there are lots of moving parts, people come and go throughout a project, and the demands on your time are endless.  It's also a low margin business which means everyone is trying to get the job done with the absolute minimum resources.  

You are responsible for optimizing labour, managing subcontractors, maintaining safe work conditions, hitting schedule milestones, pricing change orders, tracking punchlist items, staying on good terms with customers....  the list goes on.   How are you supposed to cope with all of that?

I once had a business partner and we used to joke that we were juggling hand grenades.  At any time, one could drop and everything would blow up.

There are too many things to do as a general contractor

The first thing to know is that there actually are too many things to do.  You aren't imagining it.  If you tried to accomplish every one of the "best practices" for every aspect of your job, you won't get any of them done.  

You don't have enough time in the day to do it all yourself, and trying to dot all of the i's and cross all of the t's is the sure path to burnout.

But construction is a team, sport right?  If you don't have enough yourself, surely there is someone else on the team to pitch in and cover the things you can't do...

You don't have enough money in your budget to hire people to get it all done

I have more bad news for you - people are expensive.  Adding a project coordinator to pick up the slack will costs thousands of dollars every month and odds are, you don't have the budget for it.  

If you DO have the budget to add some support staff, its because the project is sufficiently large that there is an enormous amount of work to do, and the people in the budget are still likely not high enough to complete all of the scale adjusted tasks.

And besides, if you have bonuses tied to project or corporate profitability, do you really want to spend precious dollars in your budget on extra staff?

"But Andrew," you say, "It's a cost-plus job, the owner has deep pockets, and there is more budget in this project for staff than I've ever seen before!  Surely I can add more people to carry the load on this job!"

Even if you did have the money - the people don't exist to do the work

Here's the last piece of bad news... even if you do somehow manage to land a book of business that is one big gravy train - the people that you need to hire to fill the positions you are dreaming of just don't exist.  

I'm writing this in April 2023 and there is a major labour shortage across the entire economy.  There are 10 million open jobs in the USA and another 1 million open jobs in Canada.  The labour market is likely to get even more tight as an increasing number of baby boomers retire, without a similar sized younger cohort coming up behind them to fill the ranks.  It doesn't help that construction is no longer seen as a sexy industry - very few young people are choosing to start careers in the industry.

Historically, we could rely on abundant human capital to fill our needs whenever those needs arose, but these days it's becoming increasingly less reliable to count on being able to hire at will.  

To recap: there is too much work, you don't have budget to hire people, even if you do have the budget, the people don't exist... so what do we do?

Prioritizing with the 80/20 rule

80% of the outcomes on your project will come from 20% of the activities.  This is Pareto's principle and is commonly called the 80/20 rule.  On the flip side, any of the 80% of less valuable activities that you could undertake will not have a meaningful impact on the outcome of your project either way.  

Get the low value stuff done as quickly as possible, or ignore them outright.  Figure out the things that will move the needle and focus your efforts on those.  Here are some ideas of things that could be in the top 20%:

  • Direct work on the critical path of the schedule
  • Work that is impacted by seasonality
  • High value self-performed scopes
  • Long-lead items, or items with complex supply chains
  • Uncommon or unusual scopes of work
  • Commissioning and closeout

The best way to sort the wheat from the chaff when it comes to knowing high and low value activities is by doing effective planning at the beginning of the job.  In a later article, I will do a deep dive into project planning, but for now...  

Know that planning is ALWAYS a high value activity

The saying, failing to plan is planning to fail holds very true in the construction industry.

Urgent vs. important

Once you have your list of high value activities, you need to prioritize your energy towards them.  As a project progresses, you will undoubtedly be bombarded by low value, urgent requests.  These are things that interrupt our day, distract our focus, and have short deadlines.

If you've ever received an email along the lines of "I'm sending out the office supply order this afternoon - if you need anything, let me know!", then you know first hand what I'm talking about.

Many of the most important tasks on our docket are not particularly urgent, and this can be very detrimental to the success of our projects.  As human beings, our first instinct is often to tackle the things that are closest and most pressing, but this consumes valuable time and distracts from the important things that really should get your attention.  

Project planning is the prime example of an important but not urgent task - it's very easy to procrastinate and let it slide to the point where it never really happens.  As the old mixed metaphor goes - an ounce of project planning is worth a pound of putting out fires later on... investing the time to plan pays dividends every time.

Leveraging Technology

The last suggestion I will make is a broad, general one, which is to leverage technology to increase your personal output.  There's an app for that applies to just about every business problem including those in construction.  Its highly likely that if you're experiencing something that is tedious and/or time consuming, other people have experienced the same thing and there is a software solution to streamline the task and save time.

For some reason, most general contractors don't seem to think about or seek out technology solutions - its very much a lagging industry, even in many of the most progressive companies.  

A quick google search with your problem statement like "tracking punchlist items", "electronic purchase orders for construction", "software to help with builder's liens", or "help me find a time to schedule a meeting with six people" will yield a bunch of different, time saving solutions that are worth checking out.


There are too many things to do as a project manager in construction, and you'll never get them done by yourself.  Worse yet, you can't hire away the problem either because the people don't exist and the ones who do cost too much.

By ruthlessly prioritizing the important work, and focusing your efforts there, you can be successful without needing to do every little thing.  Project plans will help identify the important tasks, and technology solutions can automate away tasks to make your time more effective.

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