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69% of Contractors Struggle to Find Craft Labor


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In 2016, construction companies have had plenty of projects. What they need are enough craft labor workers to do the work, according to an annual survey from the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) released in August. Project managers and estimating personnel are also hard to find. The following survey results came from 1,450 individuals in firms that work on highways, public buildings, retail structures, manufacturing facilities and housing.

“More than 40 percent of the construction workforce are baby boomers and we know that baby boomers are going to be retiring.”    

Brian Turmail, senior executive director of public affairs at AGC, said that 69 percent of the firms surveyed are having trouble finding all the construction workers they need, but this is better than last year, when the number was 85 percent. “We think that is a significant improvement.” He said that the slowdown in oil-field operations may have led workers to migrate to other regions for work.

Carpenters Most Needed

The survey reports that nationally, 60 percent of contractors found carpenter positions the hardest to fill; 53 percent had difficulty filling electrician positions; 50 percent, roofers; 50 percent, plumbers; and 49 percent, concrete workers.

The survey is also broken down by region. These are the top five jobs that were difficult to fill in four U.S. regions, followed by the percentage of respondents who reported them as difficult to fill.

Midwest:

Carpenters, 68 percent

Concrete workers, 54 percent

Bricklayers, 53 percent

Installers-drywall, 53 percent

Laborers, 50 percent

Northeast:

Plumbers, 67 percent

Linemen, 50 percent

Superintendent, 49 percent

Equip. operator, cranes, heavy, 43 percent

Electricians, 42 percent

South:

Cement masons, 76 percent

Carpenters, 75 percent

Concrete workers, 70 percent

Linemen, 67 percent

Plumbers, 67 percent

West:

Bricklayers, 67 percent

Carpenters, 64 percent

Installers-other, 62 percent

Electricians, 60 percent

Roofers 54, percent

Shortages Mirror Growth Patterns

Turmail said that it makes sense that the Northeast is the area that has the least trouble finding construction workers, for two reasons. First, the region is unionized, which means there are established apprentice programs in which workers are paid as they learn. Second, the Northeast didn’t go through a boom and bust cycle in the last decade.

In contrast, the South and the West are growing quickly and have more building projects as a result. But these regions have open shops and few training programs. “We don’t have robust vocational education. We’re not signaling that construction is a career path to follow,” Turmail said. AGC has a 2014 Workforce Development plan that outlines steps to take to increase the number of workers entering the field, including support for the Perkins Act, support for charter schools that focus on construction skills, and measures to help veterans access construction jobs with credit given for their military training and experience.

As to specific shortages, it makes sense that carpenters are the most in demand, because they are needed on every sort of jobsite and have specialized skills, Turmail said. The same goes for plumbers. “There was a big spike in multifamily housing in the last years, and these are plumbing intensive projects. 

Peaks and Valleys 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tells the story of the recent construction market fall and rise with the numbers of open construction jobs over the last ten years. Consider the number of open construction jobs during the month of August during the past ten years: 

  • 2006            217,000

  • 2007            164,000

  • 2008              84,000

  • 2009              62,000

  • 2010              52,000

  • 2011              98,000

  • 2012            116,000

  • 2013            128,000

  • 2014            147,000

  • 2015            151,000

  • 2016            184,000

Today, the number of jobs open is less than it was in 2006, but the positions are harder to fill because many workers moved or retired during or after the downturn of 2008-2011, so that now, when there is an uptick in job openings, there are few applicants. Turmail added, “More than 40 percent of the construction workforce are baby boomers and we know that baby boomers are going to be retiring.”

Need for Craft Labor Expected to Grow

The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects that job openings will increase. Its forecast for the increase in the number of job openings in construction from 2014 to 2024 is as follows: 

  • Construction laborer job openings, 12.7 percent by 2024

  • Construction and building inspector job openings, 8 percent by 2024

  • Construction and related-worker openings, 6.9 percent by 2024

  • Construction manager openings, 4.8 percent by 2024

  • Overall, an average increase of 8 percent by 2024

The consulting firm FMINET surveyed construction firms about labor shortages to find the driving factors for these shortages. The following list uses a scale of 1 to 5, from least to greatest impact:

  • Lack of skilled workers (3.3)

  • Exodus of baby boomers (3.3)

  • Rapid increase in backlogs of business (3.2)

  • Workers moving to different industries during the recession (3.1)

  • Poor industry reputation that has kept people from looking at construction as a career (3.1)

Subcontractors Also Scarce

In a 2014 survey of labor shortages, the National Association of Home Builders underlined the importance of considering the availability of subcontractors for a complete picture. Many people laid off during the downturn returned to work as independent contractors who found work with contractors. Most houses are built in large part by subcontractors, and there is a shortage of subcontractors, according to the survey

At least three out of five builders said that the shortages (of subcontractors) caused them to pay higher wages/subcontractor bids (65 percent), raise home prices (62 percent), and created difficulty in completing projects on time (60 percent). These were the three most common effects, by a wide margin. 

Next came making some projects unprofitable (36 percent), causing builders to turn down some projects (18 percent), and slowing the rate builders accept incoming orders (13 percent). Only 9 percent said shortages had resulted in lost or cancelled sales, and 7 percent checked “other.” About half the builders who checked “other” wrote in that they were not experiencing a shortage. 

Turmail said that the Association of General Contractors began their survey in 2013 when the association’s members reported that they had more work to do, but there were not enough workers to hire. “We said, ‘Hey, we need to measure this if this is really a significant issue’… people were having trouble finding workers although employment levels were nowhere near back to where they had been--that surprised us.”