Meet Shaun O’Brien: 2019 Craft Professional of the Year Finalist

Shaun O'Brien's objective is pretty simple: focus on developing people and providing a quality product in order to raise the standard of professionalism in construction.
By Joanna Masterson
April 3, 2019

Shaun O’Brien is a shining example of a servant leader—a quality that stems from the heart of his employer, Michigan-based Buist Electric. As a field superintendent and journeyman electrician, he’s an avid promoter of safety on the jobsite and remains active in Buist’s mentoring program, which he helped develop. His objective is pretty simple: focus on developing people and providing a quality product in order to raise the standard of professionalism in construction.

In the words of one of O’Brien’s mentees: “There’s no denying Shaun’s talent in the electrical industry, but that’s not what stands out to me. What sets him apart is his genuine way of mentoring you on how to be a husband, father and follower of God. There are plenty of people out there who can train you to become a great foreman or leader, but it takes a certain person to mold you into a man. What I learn from Shaun doesn’t stop when I punch out; it continues when I get home and will continue for a lifetime.”

With that kind of endorsement, it’s easy to see why O’Brien is one of just three finalists for Associated Builders and Contractors’ 2019 Craft Professional of the Year award, which recognizes journeymen who spend 90 percent of their daily job duties using tools/equipment or directly supervising craft professionals performing fieldwork.

O’Brien was drawn to construction by his father, an electrical inspector, who guided him toward Buist after trying college for a year. Graduating from an apprenticeship program was a big milestone, and O’Brien credits it with making him well-rounded because he had opportunities to ask lots of questions along the way.

“We have to get creative, especially in the area of education,” he notes. “Book learning is fine, but hands-on training and taking people to jobsites is really important.”

As O’Brien’s career progressed toward running larger projects, he built up confidence and started to look more at safety, mentoring people onsite and improving the company as a whole. His rise through the ranks ties back to the merit shop philosophy and the company’s outlook that experience doesn’t necessarily equal value.

“I remember my first bigger project, and the way I ran it demonstrated to management that something valuable was there. When that job was over, I was put on another job instead of other guys who may have been ‘ahead of me,’” he says. “But that’s what’s fair. People who put the effort in deserve a chance to prove themselves and to succeed.”

The approach has paid off for O’Brien, who is helping develop Buist University, where all employees are invited to participate in labs to learn things they might not see on the jobsite every day. O’Brien also recently took 19 students and administrators from his alma mater, East Kentwood High School, on a tour of Buist’s facility, where he shared tidbits from his 32 years in the industry and even taught the basics of how to bend conduit. The company also sponsors a program with Kelloggsville Public Schools in which Buist gives students opportunities to work while they attend high school.

“It’s important to educate kids in school so they understand the complexity of our job and the opportunities out there,” O’Brien says. “When I started in electrical, I liked doing the work. Now I’ve progressed into more of a management position. I’m not sure our youth fully understand the potential in the industry and what it really means to be a construction worker. There’s a ton of room for growth no matter who you are.”

O’Brien emphasizes all the potential avenues depending on whether the individual is a people person or might be more interested in safety, etc. Case in point: Two of his sons work at Buist. Will is a foreman in the service department and Joe is an apprentice in the contracting group. Two more sons—John, age 15, and Sam, age 13—aspire to become electricians and leaders like their dad.

“I don’t like the construction worker stereotype,” O’Brien says. “We’re always trying to raise the standard in that area by dispelling myths and talking about professionalism in the industry.”

Mission seemingly accomplished for O’Brien.

“Never before have I been associated with a project where I developed relationships with the subcontractors and was on a first-name basis with them. I am not joking when I say that Shaun O'Brien is my favorite electrician of all time,” says Wade Goehring, senior architect at HDR. Speaking from experience on a complicated project they performed together: “Moving electrical, data and cable receptacles after the drywall was finished and painted became routine. In some places, there was no drywall left for Shaun to attach to because the walls looked like Swiss cheese after all of the moves. But Shaun did not give up. He kept smiling and plugging away."

Read about Craft Professional of the Year finalist Joel Newton here.

by Joanna Masterson

Joanna Masterson was a writer and editor for Construction Executive for more than a decade.

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