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The Construction Labor Shortage: 5 Ways to Fill the Gap


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All the headlines are talking about the same thing: construction labor shortage. 

But the labor shortage is not actually new at all, and now spans more than two decades. There are economic and industry factors at play which keep the labor issue from being resolved. 

“For more than 20 years, the construction and pipeline industry have recognized the emerging and growing shortages of skilled craftworkers but broad industry-wide support needed to solve the problem has not been obtained.”  

By 1999, what had begun as regional and local shortages expanded nationally. “Causes of the Construction Skilled Labor Shortage and Proposed Solutions,” published by the Associated Schools of Construction, reported that 92% of national construction firms said they had shortages of skilled labor, and 85% said their workers didn’t have all the skills necessary for the market. 

Dean T. Kashiwagi and Scott Massner published their solution to the “problem of craftsperson shortage in the construction industry” in April 2002, and by 2008, the Construction Industry Institute summed up the labor shortage problem: “For more than 20 years, the construction and pipeline industry have recognized the emerging and growing shortages of skilled craftworkers but broad industry-wide support needed to solve the problem has not been obtained.”  

One issue at the heart of the labor problem is construction’s reputation. In 1992, young employees who were ready to enter the workforce generally thought of construction as “dirty, nonprofessional, and non-technical,” according to the report “Characteristics of the Construction Craft Workforce.” Little had changed by the turn of this century. Surveys by the Construction Industry Institute found that people left the industry “because of pay, lack of permanent employment, poor safety, poor treatment, and poor working conditions.” 

Aspects of the construction industry, like its fragmented nature and adversarial environment, hamper its ability to mount long-term, sustainable solutions to its problems. 

But, at the contractor level, there are things you can do to solve your own labor issues. And, a good place to start is with young employees beginning their careers.

1. Fill the Pipeline

If your company uses modern techniques, equipment, and tools, much of the unattractiveness associated with construction work is diminished. But, to entice new entrants to the work, you need to take the message to them––visit high schools, community colleges, and vocational centers to talk about, and show, what the real construction world is like. 

2. Offer Job Training

Develop training programs for your most critical skills and then offer recruits training through apprenticeship programs. They join as employees in an apprentice level with self-paced or classroom training as well as on-the-job experience. Once they’re in the program, find out what their career aspirations are and outline a career progression strategy so they see advancement is a real possibility. 

3. Look to Other Sectors

People are often in the white collar jobs they’re in because that’s what others expected of them. But today, craftwork and skilled trades work is a viable alternative for those who would like the kind of job satisfaction that comes from seeing tangible results at the end of the day. 

4. Protect What You Have

Focus on retaining the skilled labor you have. Make sure your current workforce is satisfied and happy. Help them see their future and design a tangible path to get there. Don’t neglect older workers who have a wide range of skills and experience. Make sure they receive the same training and advancement options as the younger workers. Also consider offering them more flexible work options, and positions where they can use their experience while also helping with company initiatives.

5. Get Outside Help

Connect with industry groups and unions to see where your needs might line up with theirs. Many employment recruiters specialize in finding and placing construction personnel, and their prescreening and qualifying can save you time while limiting risk.   

Finally, make recruiting a budget line item. Divide the amount you budget between long-term strategies and short-term tactics. You need long-term strategies to sustain your efforts and help feed some of your short-term tactics. Don’t wait until you have shortages to try to fill the gap. By then you’ll have to make desperate decisions.