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By Jeff Wing
May 9, 2016
The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) reports that 83% of General Contractors today are struggling to find enough skilled labor. This may come as a surprise to some. The iconic image of the ever-present, hard-hatted construction worker is as American as progress itself. What happened?
The Great Recession happened. In 2008 the gigantic U.S. housing bubble burst with explosive force––an economic blowout whose effects tore through the construction sector like a hurricane. Banks failed, lending (the lifeblood of construction) slowed to a trickle, and building projects of all shapes and sizes were left half completed. Construction workers––many with families–– were stranded without work or prospects. An entire cohort of desperately unemployable skilled labor either left the country looking for work, or left the construction sector altogether. Many were baby boomers who took the bleak opportunity to retire.
Today the world continues to shake off the effects of the Great Recession, and construction is ramping up again. That’s the good news. Unfortunately, the flight of skilled labor from the construction sector at the height of the housing bust means availability of construction workers is not keeping pace with the growth of construction itself. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that the construction industry will need to add 240,000 jobs a year for the next five years to meet the forecasted demand for workers who can capably do the job. Whoa. It may be time to call in the Marines.
And the Army, Navy, and Air Force.
Every year, around 250,000 dedicated, disciplined, forward-thinking problem-solvers rotate out of the military and enter the private sector. These are our vets, and they comprise an incredibly rich labor pool, and a golden opportunity for the understaffed builder. Returning vets have already served our country once, to our common benefit. Now, as they change hats, this group of highly disciplined, team-oriented workers can bring their hard-won skillsets to the construction jobsite, and not a minute too soon. Integrity, motivation, teamwork, duty; these aren’t aspirational buzzwords to the vet, they are the defining characteristics of the culture they’ve been living and breathing––deeply held convictions that make the vet a high-octane asset on the jobsite. Service to Country? That happens in the private sector, too. Note to the hiring manager: are you in on this?
When we think “military” we tend to imagine front-line soldiers, but in fact, the fighting soldiery comprise only about 1% of the military structure. The other 99% of the military are “support” personnel, and following basic training, the “expertise spread” in the military mirrors that of the civilian world. Our military is populated by engineers, electricians, plumbers, accountants, logistics specialists, supply chain supervisors, administrators, heavy equipment operators––you name it. Marry these skill sets to the vet’s senses of duty and responsibility and you have a potent combination of worker traits. Yes, the military has expensively prepped your new hire.
For instance, teamwork and team building are core concepts in the military, to say the very least. When your worker comes to you from a work culture where the interdependence of team members can mean the literal difference between life and death, you won’t have to worry about that worker’s ability to find the team synergy and run with it.
From a project management standpoint, it’s fair to say that no one innately understands logistical and organizational clarity like someone who has worked on a supply chain in a military setting, battlefield or otherwise. Organizational acumen? Check. But the military also trains extensively in the sort of strategic quick-think that can show the way out of a suddenly fluid, unplanned-for situation. Or what construction PMs call "the average workday".
As offshore military commitments change and more vets come home, the labor-starved construction industry can be the main beneficiary of this historic influx of ready-for-hire talent. To its vast credit, AGC is taking a leadership position on the issue, advocating in Congress for vet student funding, and working with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Hiring Our Heroes program to help the construction industry meet its goal of adding 100,000 vets to its employment rolls over the next 5 years. The ancient saying about “turning swords into plowshares” has never been so relevant.
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