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A competency-
A competency-based model for based model
construction supervisors in
developing countries
585
Alfredo Serpell and Ximena Ferrada
Department of Construction Engineering and Management,
Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile

Abstract
Purpose – To analyze the role of construction site supervisors, including foremen and general
foremen, as front-line managers. The role is treated as a critical labor function and a source of
value-added for construction management.
Design/methodology/approach – An original model based on the labor competency management
framework is proposed for training, developing and certifying construction supervisors in Chile and
other developing countries. This model was developed from the findings of a case study in which the
competency framework was applied to a specific construction company.
Findings – This case study has demonstrated the significant potential of the competency framework
for the Chilean construction sector, with its underdeveloped human resources management methods.
In particular, this framework can be an effective approach to achieving the competencies required by
construction site supervisors who must deal with inadequately trained workers, as is the case in many
developing countries. The structured approach of the competency framework can help companies
create more objective schemes for the design and implementation of training programs.
Practical implications – The application of the competency approach can greatly improve the
human resources management function in construction companies as well as the site performance of
their personnel. The findings obtained so far in Chile can also be projected to construction companies
in other developing countries in the region.
Originality/value – This paper presents the first application of the competency framework to a
Chilean construction company. This study is also original in the sense that the application described
here was carried out in an environment where human resource conditions are quite deficient.
Keywords Line managers, Construction industry, Human resource management, Competences,
Developing countries, Chile
Paper type Case study

Introduction
A company can be characterized independently of its organizational structure or the
product it offers as a system of relationships among its parts and connected with its
external environment (Libbrecht and Vandevyvere, 2002). An important component of
this dynamic and flexible architecture is the human factor, that is, the contribution
made by people to the achievement of the company’s strategic and business objectives
(Drucker, 2002). In the view of Woodruffe (as cited by Hayes et al., 2000), competencies
will be the common language of human resource systems in the future, and can be used
to provide the necessary framework within which an organization can develop its
personnel. Personnel Review
Vol. 36 No. 4, 2007
The labor competency management approach is currently applied in many pp. 585-602
developed and developing countries (Mertens, 1996). However, there is as yet no single q Emerald Group Publishing Limited
0048-3486
definition of the concept of competency. According to the Instituto Nacional de Empleo DOI 10.1108/00483480710752812
PR de España (INEM, 1995), for example, “professional competencies define the effective
36,4 use of skills that allow work to be performed having regard to the levels required by
the job. More than mere technical knowledge, they also involve understanding and
know-how . . . ” For Spencer and Spencer (1993), competency is an underlying
characteristic of the individual that is causally related to a standard of effectiveness
and/or to a superior performance in a job or situation. Mertens (1998), on the other
586 hand, defines competency as the capacity demonstrated by a person to achieve a result
that may or may not become an effective contribution. The common element in all of
these definitions of the competency concept is that it involves people’s attributes,
which are evaluated in terms of the degree to which the desired results are actually
achieved.
Woodruffe (1991) differentiates between “areas of competency”, a role- or job-related
concept referring to what a person must be proficient in, and “competencies”, a
person-related concept describing the sets of behaviors that a person must adopt in
order to perform the tasks or functions of a job in a proficient manner. In this study,
however, a different typology is proposed. We define “basic competencies” as entry
attributes, this is, the knowledge, abilities and attitudes of a person upon joining an
organization; “organizational competencies” as those that are directly related to the
values, policies and culture of the organization; and “labor function competencies” as a
mixture of knowledge, abilities and psycho-social behaviors, both technical and
generic to the function in question.
The emergence of competency labor management may be considered as a break
from the classic labor management methods of the Frederick Taylor and Henri Fayol
school (Le Boterf, 2001). It is the latter approach, however, that still predominates in the
Chilean construction industry, where management has confined itself to the
bureaucratic roles of paying wages, complying with labor laws and recruiting and
selecting personnel. The new labor management concept attempts to transform
workers traditionally oriented only toward production and the carrying out of
prescribed tasks into actors who go beyond what is prescribed, putting actions into
practice and able to react to events; in short, to make a contribution to their job (Le
Boterf, 2001).
According to Evans and Lindsay (2002), one of the greatest limitations of the Taylor
system and the promoters of scientific management was their failure to make use of
some of the most important assets of any organization, which are the knowledge, talent
and creativity of its workers. Though perhaps justifiable at the time the system was
created, when workers and foremen did not have the necessary education for work
planning and decision-making, this shortcoming is no longer excusable in today’s
world. In the Taylor model, the foreman’s sole responsibility was to assure production.
This tendency to minimize the human contribution to work is what led to the
discrediting of the model (Vargas et al., 2001). Again according to Evans and Lindsay,
the current thinking is that employees should design and improve work processes,
inspect their own work and search for ways to increase the productivity of their efforts.
This leads to a different way of looking at competencies of workers, and especially
those of foremen, that is more oriented toward exploiting their personal qualities,
knowledge and skills, or indeed, the entire range of their capabilities.
In the competency labor management approach, personnel management becomes a
strategic area where the management of talent is aligned with the objectives of the
business as well as its vision and mission (Vargas, 2002). The approach begins with an A competency-
overall view of the company as a complete organization and of its human resources based model
subsystem. Employee selection and recruitment, incentive policies and, above all,
personnel training and development are driven by labor competency norms designed
as a function of the requirements of business processes and their performance
indicators. As reported by Antonacopoulou and Fitzgerald (1996), many see the
competency management approach as a reference framework for a system that can 587
design the inputs for an organizational plan and deliver outputs in the form of
employee performance through the application of criteria for recruitment and selection,
training and development, personnel changes, and payment and benefits schemes.
With the implementation of a competency framework, personnel are seen as the
main source of value added (Alles, 2000). The various levels of management, who have
traditionally managed human resources similarly to any other physical asset as a mere
cost, find themselves required to adopt a type of management they have not been
educated for. This is occurring both among professional staff, who usually have
technical training, and work supervisors, general foremen and foremen, whose training
is usually minimal.
A good human resources management function should be aligned with the strategy
of the organization, and this can be efficiently achieved through the application of the
competency approach. Some have pointed out, however, that there is always a risk that
human resources systems can damage an organization’s competitive advantages,
inhibiting the mobilization of new competencies or the appropriate exploitation of
existent ones (Lindgren et al., 2004). In the case of the Chilean construction industry,
the development of workers’ competencies is so inadequate that any action taken on
human resources will likely produce a significant improvement over the current
situation. The competency approach can provide a framework that would serve as a
useful guide for developing systematic training plans for construction personnel in a
developing-country context.
The building industry exists to meet the need for housing and infrastructure and is
thus an important sector of every country’s economy, employing large numbers of
people. In Chile, construction accounts for an average of 8.4 percent of GDP and
provides jobs to an estimated 500,000 workers. Nevertheless, it also suffers from a
notable waste of talent and human potential. One of the causes, as highlighted by Datta
(2000), is management’s traditional lack of commitment to the development and
training of its labor force. Indeed, it is telling that there exists no official government or
industry-wide qualification system for construction workers. Each company
determines the skill levels of its personnel according to its own qualification system,
if it has one at all.
The globalized context in which Chilean construction companies now operate
demands the capacity to adapt quickly to changes, challenges and opportunities. In
this new scenario, flexibility, initiative and multiple abilities are qualities that
company personnel must have. Site supervisors in particular are being confronted
with competency requirements for which they are not well prepared. Tasks are not as
narrowly defined as in the past and have become more service oriented, making
social skills increasingly important (National Centre for Vocational Education
Research, 2003).
PR In the face of these new demands, construction companies regardless of their size
36,4 must incorporate in their management strategies the management of their own
personnel, and especially the development of their competencies. In Chile the industry
has been slow to value non-professional labor, and this has given rise to a significant
gap between construction companies’ need to implement new competitive strategies
and the actual daily conduct of their human resources management and development.
588 A military style of organization is common in these firms, with well-defined lines of
authority and superior-subordinate relationships. The result is an almost total absence
of site supervisors’ participation in workplace decision-making (Serpell and Rodrı́guez,
2002).
In this article, we describe the application of the competency labor management
framework to the management of human resources in a Chilean construction company.
Our analysis will focus on just one of the various employment positions typically found
in such an enterprise, which is the construction site supervisor function. Included in
this job category are general foremen and foremen. The role of the site supervisor is
discussed and interpreted as a “critical labor function” due to its impact on site
productivity, quality and general site performance and its importance for achieving the
objectives of a construction project.
The main concepts and principles of the competency framework as applied to the
construction site supervisor position are also discussed, and the concept of a critical
labor function is explained. Finally, the central results obtained from the application of
these concepts to a particular construction firm are presented together with the
implementation model derived.

Work culture and management practices in the Chilean construction


industry
In Latin America, the construction industry has one of the lowest levels of development
of all economic sectors. The situation is even more blatant when compared with the
building industry in developed countries. The use of modern technological tools to deal
with the various problems faced by the Latin American construction sector is
notoriously insufficient (Serpell and Rodrı́guez, 2002).
Among the various causes of this underdevelopment, one of the most important is
the strong resistance to change displayed by construction companies, who tend to stick
to the same work methods as long as they generate good results, even if those methods
are neither the safest nor the most efficient. This situation has its roots in certain
cultural traits of Latin Americans, who display high levels of distrust when faced with
the unknown. The result is an attitude of wariness in any situation that changes or
alters what it is considered to be normal (Rodrı́guez, 2001).
This phenomenon is also present in the Chilean context and has the effect of limiting
the implementation of new practices, with older workers the most reluctant to accept
changes (González, 2001). Furthermore, since the construction sector values a person’s
years of experience in the business above all else, there is an attitude of contempt
toward new knowledge that leads to a lack of interest in professional upgrading and
training activities that could contribute to a general improvement of construction
activity (Serpell and Rodrı́guez, 2002).
On building sites, communication between site managers and supervisors is
generally poor due to the lack of processes that would allow a more fluid contact
between them. This is exacerbated by the inadequate organizational culture existing in A competency-
the Chilean construction sector. A cultural analysis of the industry reveals that it is a based model
heavily “macho” environment whose workers are generally drawn from the lower
social classes and value highly the respect, loyalty and commitment of their fellows
(González, 2001).
A number of other characteristics of the industry’s organizational culture identified
in the González study are given below: 589
(1) Lack of formal hiring procedures at the operational level: there are two types of
hiring: one for direct operational workers and crew supervisors performing site
labor, and another for middle and top managers. For the first type it was found
that there was a total lack of formal procedures, while for the second, there was
greater formality and specialized resources were employed. Another interesting
characteristic peculiar to the construction culture is that the hiring process
usually involves the supervisor and his group of workers, the entire
construction “gang”. This explains the strong loyalty of workers to their boss.
(2) Machismo: it was found that the great majority of construction personnel are
male, the result of deeply rooted attitudes among managers that construction is
strictly a man’s job. On the other hand, the workers themselves expressed an
acceptance of women on construction sites, though the sincerity of such
opinions must be questioned.
(3) Dominance of strong hierarchical structures: as noted earlier, there generally
exists a military type of organization with very strong lines of authority and
superior-subordinate relationships. This results in an almost total lack of
worker and supervisor participation in workplace decision-making. Further
consequences are the strong ties that develop between workers at the same level
and the paternalism between superiors and subordinates at the building site.
(4) Lack of education and formal training: at the operational level, workers
generally learn by doing and from their more experienced fellows. There is a
notable lack of professionalism in work at this level, and although management
has lately shown more concern, the situation is still very much what it was
years ago. This state of affairs is also the result of the informality in hiring
procedures, added to the fact that construction is a job open to anyone.
(5) Short-term mentality: the management of most construction companies, and
particularly the smaller ones, generally exhibit very short-term work horizons,
poor planning, little interest in making improvements and a focus on quick
profits. This plus the fact that the majority of building firms are, in fact,
relatively small results in a lack of continuity in construction activity that also
affects industry personnel. The workers are influenced by these phenomena and
thus also tend to adopt a short-term outlook.
(6) Use of oral communication and highly informal language: as with many other
work activities that are seen as male (e.g. mining), it was found that most
communication in construction takes place orally, especially on actual building
sites. Furthermore, the language used is peppered with industry slang and loud
obscenities. This, however, does not necessarily imply a lack of respect between
personnel at the same or different hierarchical levels.
PR (7) Responsibilities are unclear: construction personnel generally avoid being held
36,4 accountable for occurrences at the job site even when they are in charge.
Responsibilities in this sector thus tend to be poorly defined. This is also the
case for other types of employment, and is typical of the Chilean organizational
culture (Rodrı́guez, 2001).
(8) Low self-esteem of construction workers: many workers feel that construction is
590 a dirty job and for this reason enjoys low social prestige. This is particularly
true of the housing sub-sector.
(9) Lack of employment continuity: this is a well-known characteristic of the
construction sector that affects the motivation of workers and reinforces their
short-term outlook. The study also showed that although construction workers
accept this aspect of the industry, employment uncertainty has a serious impact
on the behavior and attitudes of construction personnel. For this reason, people
in construction place a high value on job stability and try to secure it by
building personal connections with managers who can provide greater
continuity through a highly paternalistic relationship. This phenomenon is
peculiar to construction, as in Chile such is generally not the case.
(10) Invariability of processes: people in the construction industry exhibit a strong
tendency to do their jobs in the same way they have always been done, and are
determined to continue doing so. The result is a resistance to change and very
conservative attitudes. This pattern was observed not only in workers but
among managers as well.
(11) Celebration of the completion of structural work: it is a tradition in the industry
to hold a celebration to mark the completion of the structural phase of building
construction. These events, in which all employees at the site take part, were the
only formal construction project rite observed during the study.
(12) Construction is a dangerous work: there is a deeply rooted feeling among
workers that they must be stoic in facing the risks present in construction work.
This feeling generally leads to a resistance to use safety equipment or adopt
safe work habits. Nevertheless, it was also observed that these attitudes have
evolved very significantly over the last decade.
(13) Flirtatious behavior towards female passers-by: this aspect of construction site
culture can almost be considered a tradition. The motivation for such
manifestations is usually to show off one’s creativity in front of fellow workers
as a way of gaining prestige and status within the group.
(14) Managers’ paradigms or myths about workers: it was observed that
construction managers hold firmly to many paradigms about construction
work that constitute strong barriers to workers’ development and participation.
These included the following:
.
construction workers must be subjected to strict supervision in the
workplace;
.
construction workers are unable to offer new ideas or solutions;
.
construction workers are unable to make decisions; and
.
construction workers are always trying to evade their duties.
Further information of a general nature on Chilean construction workers may be found A competency-
in a study by the Chilean Construction Industry Chamber of Commerce (1993). Some based model
highlights of the study, based on 849 workers and foremen interviewed at different
construction sites around Chile, are given in what follows:
.
More than 60 percent of the workers were under 35 years of age.
.
Nearly 65 percent of the workers had worked more than 5 years in construction
but less than 30 percent had worked more than 15 years in the industry. 591
.
About 60 percent of the workers went into construction for economic reasons
(30.1 percent could not find other work and 29.3 percent hoped to earn more than
in previous jobs), while 26.5 percent were there because they were familiar with
the work and enjoyed it.
.
More than 91 percent of construction workers had learned their trade exclusively
on the job rather than through formal study.
.
Only 15.3 percent of those interviewed had taken at least one training course
during their working life.
.
More than 75 percent of the workers have not completed their grade-school
education and more than 30 percent did not finish elementary (primary) school.
Unfortunately, no study of construction workers similar to the one just cited has been
conducted over the last decade. However, the present authors’ knowledge of the
industry and indirect data gleaned from other research (González, 2001; González,
2002) suggest that little has changed since 1993.
According to González (2002), the management of construction projects in Chile is
characterized by an organizational structure strongly based on experience and a
certain degree of professionalism. Most site managers are university-graduate
professionals with experience in the kinds of projects they oversee. The study also
found that these managers tend to use relatively flat organizational structures which
enable a higher degree of flexibility and functionality in decision making and less
bureaucracy. Their main concern is the lack of qualified personnel. Training programs
aimed at improving site performance are non-existent for workers and even for the
managers themselves. This situation undermines any possibility of implementing
changes at the construction site level.
Because of the prevailing culture in the industry and its strongly hierarchical
structure, the possibilities for workers’ participation in decision-making are also very
limited. In addition, González discovered an additional barrier in the form of a belief
common among some managers according to which workers are mere mechanical
elements that carry out orders to the letter and have no interest in contributing further.
This view is not consistent with workers’ own expressions of their willingness to
assume more responsibilities, and clearly puts limits on their ability to participate
(González, 2001). These managers’ distrust of the workers is demonstrated by the strict
controls they maintain at building sites and their frequently repeated opinion that
workers cannot be left unsupervised.

The construction site supervisor’s role


Construction site supervisors are responsible for directing the execution of basic
construction project work operations, as well as for communicating the project’s
PR objectives and goals to the workers. They are in permanent contact with site personnel,
36,4 responding to their needs and observing and checking their performance. Also,
supervisors must implement general planning guidelines at the construction work
level, serving as a nexus between the project manager and the workers. This requires
that supervisors prepare work plans and communicate them to the workers charged
with their execution.
592 Due to their close involvement with site activity, supervisors’ management efforts
impact directly on the productivity and final quality of the work they are responsible
for. Their performance is thus of particular importance for achieving a project’s
objectives.
Although most construction managers and site professionals recognize the
importance of site supervisors to the successful execution of construction projects, this
is not clearly reflected in actual practice. On-site observation has shown that the role of
these supervisors is subject to various restrictions. Some indications of this
phenomenon include the following (Serpell and Ureta, 1989):
. Supervisors are generally excluded from improvement and training programs.
Most of them did not finish school and their professional development consists
mainly of on-the-job experience and learning from more experienced site
personnel.
.
Their authority to make decisions is usually quite limited owing to the fact that
they are considered as workers instead of site management.
.
They are restricted to functional tasks and are lax in the control they exert over
their workers.
.
Their status is relatively low in the eyes of the workers, who are aware that they
(the supervisors) are not clearly supported by management or consulted on
decision-making.

According to the previously cited Chilean Construction Chamber study (1993), there are
serious weaknesses in the training of site supervisors (general foremen and foremen)
and a lack of middle-level professionals or technicians with one or two years of
specialized training in construction for supervisory positions. Among the most
important deficiencies currently encountered in the construction sector as regards site
supervisors, we may mention the following:
.
A lack of formal training to qualify site supervisors for taking on supervisory
responsibilities. There is no an official supervisor job definition to orient their
training.
.
Current training activity is insufficient to supply the number of supervisors
required by the market.
.
The lack of appropriate training for site supervisors increases construction costs
due to their inability to carry out work planning, communicate effectively with
workers or properly direct work activities.
.
Inappropriate supervisory personnel selection processes. Supervisors tend to be
workers with experience in site work and strong personalities that set them apart
from their fellow workers, but without formal knowledge or training in
management skills.
.
There is no national qualification system that evaluates and certifies site A competency-
supervisors. Their skill qualification levels are set by each individual company, based model
thus creating a supply of supervisors that is neither uniform nor comparable.

In the last few years, some Chilean construction companies have begun to change their
view of the site supervisor’s role and are implementing a new vision of the position in
their organizations. On this approach, site supervisors are seen as first-line managers, 593
meaning that their function is recognized as belonging to the management level. The
focus of the supervisor’s management role is thus to direct the basic work processes for
executing construction. This means that activities formerly the preserve of higher
management levels are now becoming part of the site supervisor’s work at the
operating level.
In this new role, supervisors are now qualified to design, develop and manage their
work teams for performing construction work. The new leadership function for
directing the members of their teams has thus become another required competency.
As regards the classic functional control activity in which site supervisors confined
themselves to overseeing the carrying out of tasks, this has also changed. Supervisors
must now assume many other functions such as management control, operational
planning, evaluation of planning goal execution, and quality control. Charged with
these new responsibilities, supervisors are required to develop skills and abilities for
communicating effectively and coordinating the activities of external suppliers and
subcontractors.
To ensure that personnel at the various levels, and particularly site supervisors,
attain the required competencies, a number of construction companies are adopting
and implementing the competency labor management framework. One of these
companies approached the authors to request guidance in the framework’s application.
A complete list of competencies was developed for each of the company’s occupational
groups, with definitions tailored to the firm’s specific needs. One of the target
occupational groups for competency definition was the supervisor group.

Application of the framework


In this section we present the results of a specific application of the competency-based
labor management framework to the site supervisor’s job at a Chilean construction
company. Founded in 1981, the company specializes primarily in the following
construction markets: buildings (more than 400,000 square meters constructed), water
and sewage, roads and highway and other civil infrastructure. It is also involved in the
real estate market, where it develops its own projects. Over the last several years the
firm has demonstrated a strong desire to become one of the leading and most
competitive construction companies in Chile, and to this end has adopted a well-defined
strategic vision. Though not unusual in developed countries, this is quite exceptional in
the Chilean building industry where few companies have embraced such practices. To
achieve its objectives the firm has implemented several innovations and advances to
improve its performance in different areas. As an example, during the course of this
study the company successfully completed its ISO 9001 certification and was
implementing innovative information technologies for performance control at
construction sites. It has also announced a rigorous human resources policy aimed
at creating a highly competent work force who demonstrate the most appropriate work
PR attitudes and behavior for each job or task. When this study was conducted the
36,4 company had more than 1,500 employees working on different construction projects.
Though a relatively young company, it already possesses a strong organizational
culture that promotes the participation of all employees within the organization. The
application of the competency framework reported on here is in fact the first such effort
in the Chilean construction industry.
594 The actual implementation of the framework involved designing an education and
training plan based on labor competencies. Development of the plan was completed in
five months. Our study began with a series of meetings with the company’s Quality
Management Coordinators Committee, the entity in charge of the project, to gather
information about the objectives and requirements of the organization as they affected
the design of the training plan. Once the project scope was defined, an analysis of the
business process was initiated and the company’s critical labor functions were thus
identified.
The competency profile development stage included many meetings with personnel
who performed the various labor functions under analysis so as to better identify the
required competencies for successful job performance. During these meetings, the
authors observed that attitudes among all of the people involved regarding the
application of the framework were very positive. Most were satisfied with the
company’s labor policies and expressed high expectations regarding the potential of
the competency scheme for furthering their professional careers.
Once the different competency profiles had been developed, the skill levels of
personnel who performed the various labor functions for which competency profiles
were defined were then evaluated in order to identify the training gap and
subsequently define a training plan for the company. It should be noted here that our
purpose was not to improve what already existed at the company or to achieve ideal
performance levels, but rather to identify labor profiles, such as the one for site
supervisor, that clearly matched the company’s needs. It was then possible to identify
those critical competencies the personnel in question were lacking and initiate the
necessary training processes.
Also of importance is that no attempt was made to compare the performance of site
supervisors in Chile with that of their counterparts in developed countries, for to do so
would have required that the Chileans overcame many fundamental weaknesses before
the possibility of further progress could be considered.
As part of the application of the competency-based management framework, an
implementation model was developed and is shown here in Figure 1. In what follows,
the model’s principal stages are explained with emphasis on the site supervisor
function. Each stage is represented by a rectangle corresponding to an activity to be
performed.

Analysis of business processes


The purpose of this stage was to analyze certain items of information that were
relevant to the purposes of the company. One such item was the organization’s
strategic directives; another was its clients’ requirements. The idea was to align the
competency approach with the company’s business priorities in order that the
competencies developed were those that were genuinely required. In this review phase
the company mission and characterizations of its main products and services were
A competency-
based model

595

Figure 1.
Competency-based labor
management
implementation model
(ovald represent inputs or
results and rectangles
represents activities)

clearly defined. The firm’s vision and the strategic objectives that framed its
then-current strategic priorities were examined together with its organizational values,
its principal policies and its human resources management function.
Emerging from this analysis were the principal required organizational
competencies. One of these competencies was the occupational category of site
management.

Identification of Critical Labor Functions (CLF)


Using the information generated in the previous stage, the main critical labor functions
for each organizational function were identified. In the site management occupational
group, “site supervision” was identified as a critical function, although initially the
function’s title was left open. At this point the emphasis was on the function itself
rather than its formal title or name.
As well as identifying this function, an analysis of the specific characteristics of its
“business process” was carried out, covering the purposes of the process, its critical
characteristics and its specific outputs. In addition, the function’s relationships and its
coordination with client and supplier processes were specified. Performance indicators
for the business process were also defined in this stage.

Development of the competency profile


The background information obtained in the first two stages of the analysis was
employed in the third stage, which consisted of determining the site supervisor’s
PR competency profile. This was accomplished through an examination of the critical
36,4 activities engaged in by the supervisor in fulfilling his role as a first-line manager.
The first task was to specify the title of the function, which in this case was “site
supervisor.” In the opinion of those who participated in the study, the designation of a
title was not a trivial matter. It must not be the name of a profession or occupation, but
rather should clearly express the nature of the function and its output. The purpose of
596 the function was then described in terms of the site supervisor’s main activity or
activities and formulated in such a way as to express the specific actions involved (to
supervise, to plan, etc.). This was followed by a breakdown of these activities,
beginning with the most general and proceeding to the most detailed, the latter
including the planning of operational processes, leading work crews, and supervising
work progress, among others.
A third level of breakdown described the “critical activities” with a sufficient degree
of detail as to correspond to the specific responsibilities of the site supervisor. This was
done in such a manner that responsibilities were not identified with tasks, as it was
expressly desired to avoid the confusion of the two. The wording began with an action
verb and continued with the object of the verb to which the action was applied,
indicating any quality or safety conditions attached thereto. The analysis for the labor
function of site supervisor is shown in Table I.

To plan the site and operational processes in To plan and implement operational actions of
accordance with tactical plan of construction work teams in accordance with project cost, time,
project and company policies quality and safety indicators
To distribute and control resources required by
basic site operations in accordance with process
plan and quality standards
To coordinate execution of site activities at the
different work faces based on operational plan
To lead internal and external work teams carrying To assign functions and their responsibilities
out project construction in accordance with among the different construction process stages in
personnel management policies of organization accordance with project’s human resources plan
To involve internal and external construction
workers in quality system, safety and
environmental practices in accordance with
corporate policies
To train and evaluate competencies of
construction workers involved in basic
construction processes in accordance with
corporate and project policies
To supervise the progress of construction To supervise the fulfillment of construction
Table I. activities and their execution, ensuring objectives while ensuring compliance with legal
Critical activities of the compliance with the organization’s quality safety and environmental regulations and
site supervisor (purpose: system, safety and environmental standards company policies
to supervise and To measure progress of construction activities in
coordinate the execution accordance with project’s tactical and operational
of the critical activities in schedule
the operational work in To report the state of progress of operational
accordance with project activities based on performance indicators and
plan) operational plan measures
The information and descriptions generated up to this point were enough to establish A competency-
the knowledge, attitudes and behavioral attributes a site supervisor should possess in based model
order to achieve a proficient performance level.
The competency profile should not be an abstract list of items obtained from a
dictionary of competencies, but rather must be founded on a complete prior analysis
that would enable a clear delineation of site supervisors’ performance criteria, training,
performance levels and psycho-social behavioral characteristics. 597
A correctly drawn-up profile will contain the elements necessary for an effective
subsequent evaluation of the competencies involved. Table II shows the competency
profile of the CLF under analysis that was obtained using the aforementioned
procedure. The main output of this stage was the list of competencies for the site
supervisor function.

Evaluation of competencies
The evaluation of the site supervisor’s competencies consisted of measuring their
current competency levels against those established in the competency profile for the
position. Due to the very nature of the competency framework, what needs to be
measured is not what the site supervisor is “potentially” prepared for but rather, what
he or she is genuinely capable of doing effectively. More precisely, the outcome of the
supervisor’s actions should be measured against the standards established in the
competency profile.
In applying our model, we followed the formula given in the ISO 9000:2000 standard
defining “competency as demonstrated capacity”. Besides the incumbent or candidate
site supervisor and the human resources facilitators, those who carried out related
functions such as the construction project manager also participated in the evaluation
process.

Competency profile

Education and training Understand the concepts and elements of the tactical and operational
planning of a construction project
Distinguishes and evaluates construction materials and equipment
frequently used in construction projects
Recognizes the different construction techniques
Distinguishes and applies quality, safety and environmental
procedures
Abilities and performance Leads operational working teams and involves them in operational
planning
Involves people in safety, quality and environmental practices
Plans construction projects at the operational level
Applies management tools to evaluate the progress of construction
projects and evaluates quality
Attitudes Oriented to the mission and vision and strategic goals of the project
Committed to the organizational values of the company
Committed to the safety of personnel and the security of material
resources Table II.
Flexible and able to adapt in the face of aggressive environments and Competency profile of the
situations site supervisor
PR Depending on the specific objectives of a given evaluation, which in this case is to
36,4 detect training requirements, other variables such as the organization’s objectives or
business priorities should also be considered. As an example, in a selection and
recruitment process a candidate for site supervisor can be selected or eliminated
through direct comparison with the position’s competency profile.
In our study we administered a competency proficiency survey to a representative
598 group of each of the organization’s critical labor functions in order to evaluate them in
terms of the competency profiles. In the case of site supervisors, 24 persons were so
evaluated. The results showed that in very few cases were the supervisors proficient in
the required competencies. The complete findings for the three evaluated competency
units are shown in Table III.
Those who satisfied more than 90 percent of the evaluation elements constituting a
competency unit were ranked as proficient; those who satisfied 61 percent to 90 percent
were deemed satisfactory; and those who satisfied only 41 percent to 60 percent or less
were classed as unsatisfactory. For every competence unit, there was some persons
who did not satisfy at least one such element.
It is interesting to observe that according to the survey, site supervisors did not
have the computer skills considered to be basic to their function, such as word
processing, use of spreadsheets or Internet navigation.
The final result of this stage of our model was to define the gaps between the
competency profile standards and the actual demonstrated competencies of the
company’s site supervisors at the time the evaluations were conducted. It was found
that not one supervisor successfully passed the evaluation. The gaps discovered were
then interpreted in terms of training needs.

Design of the training plan


The training plan developed during our implementation of the labor competency model
left aside all considerations not related to the competencies found to be required when
the training needs were defined (in the previous stage). Once the problem (i.e. the gaps)
was fully defined, the purpose or general objectives of the training actions were
established and the specific competency units that needed to be addressed were
selected for inclusion in the plan. The training methodology was also defined, giving
special emphasis to those activities that involved the participation of the trainees. It is
important that the training be highly individualized, both as regards the teaching
methods and the evaluations. Group-level assessment was avoided.
The training plan further included a monitoring stage to check on how supervisors
put into practice at the work site their newly acquired competencies, plus an evaluation
after a period of three to six months following training. The purpose of the evaluation
was to measure the real impact of the site supervisors’ new competencies on their
workplace performance.

Competency unit Proficient (%) Satisfactory (%) Unsatisfactory (%)


Table III.
Results of the survey of Planning of site operative processes 8.3 62.2 29.5
site supervisors’ Leading internal and external teams 4.2 87.5 8.3
competencies Supervision of progress of site activities 4.2 83.3 12.5
Execution of the training plan A competency-
This stage was not implemented during the application of our model. Once the design based model
stage was completed, however, the construction company began the process of
selecting training providers. This is a critical activity for ensuring the training will be
effective and achieve the desired results.

Evaluation 599
Whether for determining training gaps or performing competency certifications, the
evaluation of site supervisors’ competencies will involve comparing their competency
levels to those of a standard or reference (Vargas et al., 2001). The difference between
the two applications resides in the complexity and extent of the evaluation used for
certification, which requires the compilation of a variety of data in order to build a case
for making a well-grounded judgement about the person being evaluated.
Our evaluations of site supervisor competency were not conducted with a view to
gathering sufficient data for the certification of candidates for this function.
Nevertheless, it was explained to the company that as the implementation of the labor
competency framework progressed and human resources personnel developed their
expertise in the competency management approach, changes would have to be made to
company practices on performance evaluations, which at the time of the study were
done using strictly quantitative indicators. The new system would employ a mix of
indicators: quantitative ones involving process performance parameters, and
qualitative ones relating to internal and external clients’ satisfaction.
The principal reason for not pursuing the certification of competencies was that
there was then no certification system in Chile. A law establishing such a system based
on the competency approach is, however, currently being debated in the Chilean
Congress. The government entity that will be responsible for applying the law is
known as ChileCalifica, which falls under the purview of three government ministries.
One of the main purposes of the proposed law is to allow workers to have their
competencies certified on the job without regard to where or how they have acquired
them (Chilecalifica, 2003).

Summary and conclusions


This paper documents a first effort to introduce the labor competency framework into
the Chilean construction industry. As noted earlier, however, this application of the
competency approach to a particular firm has not yet been completed, and it is still too
early to evaluate its impact on company personnel. More time is needed to study all of
the potential impacts. We may conclude, however, that the structured approach of the
competency framework can help businesses develop more objective schemes for the
design and implementation of training and for management of human resources in
environments where these functions are currently inadequate.
As regards the construction site supervisor, by defining the position as a
management function, it takes on a strategic position in the company’s organization
chart, and the business process related to it becomes a critical one. The function is then
no longer limited to the bureaucratic supervision of tasks, having assumed a much
more active and committed role within the global strategy of the organization. Thus,
the site supervisor now carries out activities that are a source of value added to the
organization.
PR Chilean construction companies, whose human resource practices are generally
very traditional, are not yet able to adopt a human resource management approach in
36,4 the sense of considering people as a strategic factor. The labor competency
management framework, given that local conditions are taken into account, can serve
as a very useful alternative to change this reality, given that:
.
The labor competency approach favors the development of the entire range of a
600 person’s attributes. Particularly in cases where high performance levels are
demanded, the site supervisor is not restricted to “just one way of doing things,”
which is what occurs when the supervisor’s job description is based only on the
tasks to be performed.
.
With the labor competency scheme it is possible to address new requirements for
the site supervisor, most notably the management competencies whose
performance indicators are qualitative rather than quantitative.
Some of the principal characteristics of the competency framework that were
considered functional by the construction company when deciding its application to
the construction site supervisor, are the following:
.
The value added of a function can be understood as the level of a person’s
contribution in terms of the production of output, the fulfillment of objectives and
the achievement of strategic goals. By definition, the qualitative competency
variable is bound up with the vision/mission of an organization, area or process.
.
The determination of the critical activities of a function requires an exhaustive
analysis of the site supervision process and its numerical and non-numerical
performance indicators. In traditional practice, which is more functional in
nature, the focus on processes has been absent.
.
Job description manuals are replaced by competency profiles or standards that
must be periodically revised. The competency profile has a generic character and
to a certain extent it exists outside of the actual job context, a fact that radically
differentiates it from the task itself.
.
Performance evaluation based on the quantity of tasks carried out by the site
supervisor does not aid in measuring the value added of the supervisor’s work.
What should be measured are competencies, a system of measurement
implemented using diverse strategies but always involving comparison with a
competency profile or reference.
One last conclusion emerging from our application of a competency framework is that
training plans should be modular, so that instead of just generating isolated
knowledge, the organization can develop competency units with a high level of site
supervisor participation. The site supervisor’s training should no longer be confined to
a mere familiarization process covering only the technical aspects of the position. As
with all training geared to imparting competencies, the emphasis needs to be placed
rather on developing the capacity to learn how to learn.

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Competency Standards Design), Panorama Editorial, San Rafael.
Serpell, A. (1993), Administración de Operaciones de Construcción (Construction operations
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About the authors


Alfredo Serpell is a Professor and Department Head of the Department of Construction
Engineering and Management at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. He attained his Civil
Engineer degree from Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, and his MSc in Architectural
Engineering and PhD in Civil Engineering from The University of Texas at Austin, USA. His
research interests relate to people in construction, quality and productivity management and
construction procurement and project management. He is the co-coordinator of the CIB Work
Commission 107, Construction in Developing Countries. Alfredo Serpell is the corresponding
author and can be contacted at: aserpell@ing.puc.cl
Ximena Ferrada is a MSc student in the Department of Construction Engineering and
Management at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. She obtained her BSc degree from
Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. She currently works in the Training and Labor
Competencies Unit at DICTUC S.A. as the Head of Special Training and Labor Competencies
Programs area.

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