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Labor Shortage: Help Wanted


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The construction industry has bounced back to life after a long, painstakingly slow climb out of the recession. It’s now common to see cranes dotting the skylines of many American cities, as industries and residents move back from the suburbs. And housing starts—one of the country’s strongest and most important economic indicators—are holding steady in most regions and even growing slightly in many others. 

The picture is clear: the construction industry is growing and in need of thousands of skilled tradespeople. But how are companies going to find and attract new workers? 

According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, there were 1.14 million new privately owned housing units started in August 2016. That’s up slightly from 1.13 million housing starts from the previous August. And while those numbers might pale by comparison to the 2.27 million housing starts in January 2006, they’re rather encouraging when you consider that in January 2009 there were only 490,000 new homes built

So, the good news is that the construction industry is growing steadily and predictions indicate that it will continue to expand well into the foreseeable future. Now, the not-so-good news: There’s a serious labor shortage of skilled workers for all construction trades, which adds lengthy delays to projects and drives up the cost of everything from financing to building materials

There are many reasons for the current workforce shortage, but here are two primary culprits: 

  1. The recession drove thousands of construction workers to other industries

  2. The flow of young people entering the trades dried up when construction jobs became scarce. Plus, many union apprenticeship programs, which train new construction workers, all but ceased during the darkest days of the recession.

And now that the industry as rebounded, the labor shortage problem is compounded by attrition, as explained by Jeff Barratt, Executive Director of the Emily Griffith Technical College in Denver, “The State of Colorado forecasts a shortage of 30,000 construction jobs over the next five years, and that doesn’t take into account the graying out of incumbent construction workers.” The combination of a growing construction industry and retiring workers has made it difficult for companies find skilled workers.   

The Associated General Contractors of America, a leading organization representing more than 26,000 construction firms, recently conducted a national survey of 1,358 construction companies and discovered that a staggering 86% have difficulty filling key salaried positions. And of the 21 different trades surveyed, the top eight toughest-to-fill jobs included: carpenters (73%), sheet metal installers (65%), concrete workers (63%), electricians (60%), equipment operators (58%), roofers (56%), masons and plumbers (tied at 54%). 

Even construction jobs that require less skill and training, such as laborers and helpers, are predicted to grow by 13% through to 2024, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. And that will create over 180,000 new jobs.

The picture is clear: the construction industry is growing and in need of thousands of skilled tradespeople. But how are companies going to find and attract new workers? To start, there’s no one reason for the labor shortage and there’s no one solution to fix the problem. Some construction workers who left for other industries will be lured back by higher wages and job security. For example, one Chicago-based company is attracting new workers by guaranteeing 58-hour workweeks for the duration of its current 18-month project. 

Other companies are reserving subcontractors months in advance to ensure they’ll have enough workers once the job commences. Many firms are changing how they operate by raising pay and increasing benefits. In fact, in some regions, contractors are now competing with one another to attract the limited number of skilled workers available, a phenomenon that was nonexistent just a couple of years ago.  

Perhaps the most important step to fill the labor void was suggested by the Associated General Contractors of America. It urged federal, state, and local officials to support secondary-level technical career education and make it easier to establish construction-focused academies and charter schools. Since the end of the recession, few high school students were even exposed to the prospect of choosing construction as a possible career.

Thankfully that’s beginning to change. Technical schools and apprenticeship programs are slowly coming back into prominence. One exemplary program is well underway at Emily Griffith Technical College, which has three campuses in the greater-Denver area serving more than 7,000 students. The shining star of the college is its wildly successful apprenticeship program that offers training in 14 different construction trades located at 19 different locations.

The most unique aspect is that the apprenticeship programs provide both in-class and on-the-job training by matching apprentices with local contractors. The apprentice students are paid to work a full 40-hour week, and then attend night classes at the apprenticeship sites. In each program, students complete a minimum of 2,000 hours of on-the-job training and at least 144 classroom hours. The students are evaluated and graded on their performances on the jobsite and in the classroom. The college is also developing pre-apprenticeship programs designed specifically for high-school juniors and seniors. 

If the apprenticeship program at Emily Griffith Technical College is any indication, the next generation of skilled construction workers is on its way to help ease the labor shortage. And there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of jobs if one wishes to enter the construction trades. “However, there is still a pipeline issue with both entry-level and skilled craftsmen in the construction trades,” explains Executive Director Barratt, “so Emily Griffith has partnered with the Associated General Contractors of Colorado and developed a pre-apprenticeship program with an industry-led curriculum that has proven extremely successful.” And, according to Barratt, these entry-level positions lead to a full-fledged apprenticeship program and fulfilling career pathway into the construction industry.