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Key Strategies for Dealing with the Subcontractor Shortage

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Construction’s labor shortage continues spreading across the subcontractor landscape. The Institute for Supply Management addressed the shortage of subcontractors for the sixth consecutive month in its June 2018 Non Manufacturing Report on Business.

In particular, rough and finish carpenters, bricklayers, masons, drywall installers and concrete workers were reported seriously short in NAHB’s remodeling surveys in both 2016 and 2017. Here are tactics that will help you keep the subs you have, and to attract the ones you need.

Foster Trust

So, what does it take to keep the subs you want to keep? In short, common courtesy followed by a few benefits. Construction is a relationship game, and nowhere is that more apparent than between contractors and subcontractors. Mutual trust is the basis for any relationship, and this case is no different. Fostering trust goes a long way toward convincing your subs to stick around.

Be upfront and clear about your expectations, and ask your subs to be the same with you.

When problems arise, talk directly to the sub, not to their workers, other subs, or the contract owner. Your subs need to know you’re behind them, and you value their contributions.

Money Talks

Show your subcontractors you appreciate them by paying well and paying on time. If you can streamline payments and payment processing, do it. Take on jobs where you can get the kind of returns as it will allow you to pay them well. Be careful of taking on too many low paying jobs. Your loyal subs will probably stick with you through a few; however, if it becomes the norm, they might look for greener pastures.

Have Their Interests at Heart

These days, subcontractors are on the front lines of the latest labor shortage. Those who have been around a while have seen all of this before; they are likely to have strategies for keeping their ranks staffed up. If they haven’t been through this before, you can help by practicing some understanding. Then, work with them on scheduling to help them make the most of the labor they do have.

Anything you can do to make your subs’ work easier will pay off in the long term. Working with them to find hidden surprises and involving them in scheduling discussions are two areas that pay big dividends in reducing their headaches, and yours. If you use a project management solution like Procore’s, you can invite your subs to use the same platform thus helping them streamline their submittals, RFIs, change orders, scheduling and more.

Most subs can’t stay busy working with just one GC. Help them by referring them for jobs you don’t want to take on and by supplying references.

These strategies might help you hold on to the subs you have. What about when you need to replace a sub, or you need more subs for a big job? Consider these tactics.

Connect With Other People

Other people often hold the answer to your subcontractor search. Tell people what trades you’re looking for, and ask whether they know anyone who might be available. While you’re at it, try to get a reading on referred subs’ reputations. Ask people at lumberyards and construction supply houses. Ask outside salespeople who visit your jobs. They are on job sites all around you, and they offer introductions as well as specific information about subcontractor performance.

Tell people what trades you’re looking for, and ask whether they know anyone who might be available.

Check in with glass companies, concrete companies, millwork producers, flooring companies and other firms that sell materials and supplies to the construction market. Try connecting with their outside salespeople, too.

Be Visible on Job Sites

As you drive around, visit projects you see underway. Introduce yourself, observe the work, and leave your business card with tradespeople. In these situations, you might meet other GCs, and by establishing relationships with them, open up opportunities to employ subs they know when available.

Check Your History

History is also a good source of subs. Review the subs you’ve had in the past and reconnect with them. Regardless of the reason you aren’t working together, times change, people change, and businesses change. Things could be different, and the two of you might find rekindling the relationship is mutually beneficial.

Use Networking

Use your networks like contractor associations, online contractor forums, organizations you belong to, and your acquaintances. Many semi-retired construction people have a lot of experience and skills. If you can offer them the flexibility they need, you can tap a growing cadre of skilled people. Military veterans who worked in construction and engineering roles in the service can be helpful, as well.

Try the Service Trades

Also, consider service plumbing, electrical and HVAC companies looking for short and long-term projects to supplement their service businesses. Just be ready for higher rates, and remind them regularly when they’re due to perform on your projects.

Become a Stepping Stone

If you need subcontractors with very small businesses, like one or two people, try to think of how the work you have for them would help them get future jobs. For example, a remodeler says he found a plumber who used to do mostly multi-family but decided he’d rather do the service work for single family. The remodeler hired him for the remodels, getting his name out for the service side work he wanted.

If you liked this article, here are a few eBookswebinars, and case studies you may enjoy:

7 Strategies for Hiring and Keeping During the Labor Shortage

Help Wanted – How Technology is Fighting the Construction Labor Shortage

KBD Group Study


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