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Staff Up By Retraining Existing Workforce

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When the Associated General Contractors of America surveyed contractors about their labor woes, 80 percent admitted to having trouble finding hourly craftworkers across 20 specific crafts, according to Ken Simonson, chief economist for AGC speaking at ConstructConnect's annual construction economics webinar. 

On the salaried side, project managers, estimators, engineers, quality control people, and BIM experts are all in short supply. Many companies are increasing pay rates, improving benefits and using professional search firms to fill out their ranks. Others are getting more aggressive by training their way out of shortages.

According to Simonson, about half of those surveyed "were engaging with career building programs at high schools and community colleges, and about a third were increasing or initiating in-house training." He said contractors are also bringing in interns and working to sell people on construction careers, as it hasn't had great emphasis in the recent past.

The current system in preparing people for the workforce seems broken, said Eddie Clayton, contracting and workforce development strategies manager at Southern Co. and vice chairman of RT-335 (Construction Industry Institute research team). He said federal and state funding for technical and vocational education has fallen 18 percent over the past decade. Meanwhile, higher education funding has doubled. For some companies, that means having to take on their own training.  If you decide to use training to alleviate some of your labor shortages, consider these strategies.

The Multi-Talent Value

Many construction people are multi-talented. They know a lot about one construction aspect and a little about many others. While specialization has its place, when short on help, you can specialize yourself in worker shortages. But, what if you trained some workers for multiple tasks?

Selectively training generalists, who have high construction aptitudes to handle different types of unrelated tasks as needed, offers them variety in their daily routines. That both helps with motivation and answers your need for flexibility and timeliness. Here are some examples where this can improve your labor picture. 

— Tasks related to site management

— Tasks related to earthwork

— Installing insulation

— Demolition tasks

— Rough and finish carpentry

— Drywall and painting

— Window and door installation

Training Tactics

You can also choose to train people in new types of work, thus letting them transition to something they would like to do. Some of your people might be interested in learning different skills either just out of curiosity or because they want to move up in their career. No matter what strategy you apply, here are some training pointers.

1. Don't assume people know how to do something. Test them, and then train as needed. The person who knows a lot about construction can often learn new tasks simply by understanding the goal and figuring everything else out. These self-learners are invaluable. Nevertheless, you still need to provide examples of the required outcome and test them to make sure they understand.

2. There are often many ways to do a task, so choose the method that is the most efficient and gets the best results. Explain to the trainer and the trainee why the method works best for your company. If a trainer or a trainee has what they think is a better way, listen.

3. Set aside training time and plan it so you know what constitutes success. Make sure the trainer knows the correct methods and the expected outcome. 

4. If there is a different pay rate for the new task, make sure your employee is able to track their time for each pay rate easily. 

5. Show how to do the task, then let the trainee try. Watch them, and give them pointers when you notice them using incorrect or inefficient practices. Once satisfied they have the basics, assign a small area for them to complete on their own. Check on their progress and quality regularly. Remember to demonstrate how to correct mistakes or improve efficiency. 

Working Together

Engineering News Record reported on a company rolling out broadband in Colorado that trained former coal miners to lay the cable. Even suppliers are getting into the act. Sherwin-Williams recently launched its painter recruitment website called AmericaNeedsPainters.com

"The concern we've been hearing from many of our partners is real," said Jeff Winter, vice president of marketing at Sherwin-Williams. "The data shows that fewer people are choosing to become professional painters, and the problem is likely to get worse unless we act now. This is just one way we will continue to work with our professional painting partners to ensure they can grow their businesses profitably."

For highly specialized trade work like plumbing and electrical, you'll no doubt sub it out or look for union partners. That doesn't work very well, however, when the subcontractors have their own labor shortages. Working together to solve common labor shortages might be the best answer, while sharing training resources can help spread the costs out over multiple partners.

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