Memorial Day prompts reflection and appropriately so. We must never forget all of those who gave their lives for our freedom, whether in the two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf or in the fighting that continues today. To paraphrase, Winston Churchill, “Never has so much been owed by so many to so few.”
This day also prompts homage to those who returned, those heroes who then turned their talents and patriotism to making this country the great nation that it is. One group that deserves our continuous study and emulation is the veterans of World War II, that special group of men and women heralded in Tom Brokaw’s marvelous book, The Greatest Generation. Brokaw wrote this book as a tribute to his father and his buddies, all World War II vets. It is a compelling story, which every American can benefit from reading. He eloquently conveys how this group came back, and although they were owed so much, they never wanted to do anything but continue to serve and give in their companies, their communities and their country. The leaders, both officers and enlisted, went on to start and head companies, to build America into a great industrial economy, while at the same time ensuring that the men and women who had served and supported them in wartime had decent jobs in peacetime, jobs that could allow them to feed their families and realize the American Dream. As these leaders moved up the economic ladder, they ensured that their former troops moved in tandem. They also ensured that the working man had access to education and decent health care, primarily through the VA system, started by the late Houstonian, Dr. Michael DeBakey. Their continuing sense of responsibility for “average” people is exemplary; it is a powerful lesson for all leaders today. In a summary paragraph in the preface to the book, Brokaw concludes, wonderfully, that “while they were owed much, they asked nothing. All they did was continue to build to give and to serve.”
Are you fortunate enough to know any living World War II vets? I know three, Ralph Marek (89) who served in the US Navy; Jackie Burke, Jr (91) who served in The US Marine Corp and Denton Cooley, MD (92) who served in the US Army. On the surface, these three men have little in common, a carpenter, a pro golfer and a heart surgeon, except that, initially, they all made their living with their hands and they now live in Houston. Plus, by any measure, they have all been very successful.
Closer examination, however, shows that all three also epitomize the very best of the Greatest Generation. Marek has built one of the finest interior systems companies in the country, and has pioneered some of our industry’s best Human Resources practices. He has given generously to the homeless, particularly women with children. He is at his office every day, spending most of it lending money to the less fortunate so they can get a home or needed health care. Burke, who won both the Masters and the PGA Championships in 1956, built Champions Golf Club, along with his late partner, Jimmy Demaret, into one of the leading championship venues in the world. His club has played host to the US open, the Ryder Cup, the Tour Championship and numerous national amateur events. He too is there every day, now working on behalf of the junior and college golf programs, teaching young people and tour vets and exhorting club members to give the cars they are about to trade in to the caddies. Dr. Cooley built the world-renown Texas Heart Institute, where he and his team has done more heart surgeries than anywhere in the world. He goes to the office every day to teach and write, and he and his wife continue to give generously to this community and to Johns Hopkins Medical School, where he did his surgical training. Any event he hosts, at his home or ranch, always includes the people who serve him from other physicians and nurses to housekeepers who clean the surgical suites. None of these three ever forget those who helped them get where they are. What a rich heritage we have from these men no matter how much achievement and success you attain, no matter how great the institution you have built, you still have the obligation to continue to give and to serve every single day.
The other lesson from the Greatest Generation is even more relevant to our construction industry as we try to attract young people to make our craft work their own careers. As these leaders became more successful financially, they shared that success with their former troops. This fact is reflected best in the historical charts that show the ratio of CEO pay to worker pay. Following World War II, for at least two or three decades, this ratio was in the 20:1 range. This is exactly the range that was advocated by the late dean of management consulting, Peter Drucker, even as late as 2011. He felt this was the right range to maintain morale and productivity. Today the average CEO pay is well over 200 times the worker pay, and in the case of some “savior” CEO’s, well over an absurd 1000 times.
This is an area where our industry shines and needs to more than ever. The heads of our construction companies are, comparatively, real people, and the boards of privately held construction companies are better boards. Consequently, CEO pay has remained in a reasonable ratio, well below even the 20:1 ratio. But this positive fact does not mean that construction workers are paid well enough yet to consider making it a career. Craft worker pay has been very neglected in the past 30 years, especially since we have had unlimited access to the vulnerable immigrant worker. Only now, as a skilled worker shortage reaches a pervasive state, are we beginning to address this fact. Hopefully the wonderful work of the Construction Career Collaborative (C3), and the focused effort to achieve Comprehensive Immigration Reform will intensify and accelerate this focus on reclaiming our skilled workforce and reestablishing construction craft work as a viable and valuable career choice. We will honor the intention and the spirit of the Greatest Generation if we do.
So on this day, let us reflect with gratitude on the fallen veterans of all past wars, and let us be particularly appreciative to the life lessons of the surviving members of the Greatest Generation. We honor them most by doing what they did: Building, Serving, Giving and Sharing Success. What a magnificent legacy!