Dealing With Worker Shortages in the Commercial Construction Industry

It should come as no surprise that the construction industry is facing a shortage of skilled workers. The recent recession led to a downturn in construction spending that forced many construction companies to downsize its staff of skilled laborers in order to get through those lean times and others were forced out of business completely. The construction industry lost over 2 million workers between January 2007 and January 2011. Some workers retired while others sought greener pastures in other industries. Even before the recession workers were aging out and retiring without attracting enough young people to the industry to balance out those loses. Now that the economy has gotten back on track with construction spending reaching a four year high in July 2013, climbing to a $900.8 billion annual rate.

According to a recent survey by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) 74 percent of companies are having a hard time finding craft workers such as equipment operators and carpenters and 53 percent of companies report having a hard time filling professional positions such as estimators and project supervisors. The prospects for the future aren’t looking any better. The Construction Users Roundtable (CURT) has projected that the commercial construction industry will have a shortage of approximately 2 million workers by 2017.

General construction and specialty construction companies are going to have to take a more hands-on approach to quell the growing shortage of the skilled labor workforce. One of the keys to this will involve finding ways to reach and attract young people to careers in the construction industry. Organizations like the ACE Mentor Program of America, Inc. which has affiliates in over 200 cities and the D.C. Students Construction Trades Foundation are great examples of programs dedicated to attracting young people to the construction industry. Programs like these introduce high school students to a number of careers in design and construction by providing hands-on experience as well as providing scholarships, grants and apprenticeship opportunities to students.

Construction companies should work with local community colleges and vocational schools to help create tailored training programs to better prepare students for careers in the construction industry. Wayne Brothers, a Kannapolis, NC based site development and concrete construction company recently teamed up with Rowan-Cabarrus Community College to assist in training local residents through the N.C. Back-To-Work Initiative which focuses on training for long-term unemployed individuals. The three week training program that was developed by the school and Wayne Brothers includes classroom and field training and prepares students for an entry-level position with Wayne Brothers.

The construction industry also needs to do a better job of attracting more women and minorities to the construction field to bridge the gap in worker shortages. There are a number of programs nationwide dedicated to doing just that. The New Hampshire DOT’s Career InRoads targets women and minorities for careers in highway and bridge construction and the Moore Community House Women In Construction program that offers construction training to low-income women in the Gulf Coast. Another frequently untapped resource for developing a pipeline of future construction workers is our nation’s veterans. The Helmets to Hardhats program helps military personnel transition to civilian life by providing apprenticeship training programs for careers in the construction industry.

The construction industry also needs to keep an eye on what’s happening with immigration reform in Congress. This summer the Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act (S. 744) which would cap the number of temporary worker visas a year for the construction industry at 15,000. Some House Republicans are currently working on a bill that would still cap the number of visas but would be more responsive to market demands.

The bottom line is the skilled labor shortage facing the construction industry isn’t going to magically fix itself. All companies, regardless of size, need to take an active role in attracting, providing training and promoting careers and in the commercial construction industry. Competition is only going to get fiercer and companies are going to have to set themselves apart from their competition by providing better compensation, benefits and career advancement opportunities in order to succeed and grow.

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