According to a report by the U.S. Department of Labor, while construction job openings increased by some 129,000 in February, hiring decreased by 18,000. This worker shortage comes on the heels of President Biden’s 2021 $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which aims to help states upgrade and repair roads, bridges, transportation and other long overdue projects. But, without filling the labor gap, these projects are at risk of taking longer, being more expensive, and even shutting down. But what is causing the construction industry’s dire labor shortage? In other words, where are all the workers?! And what can we do about it?
Where are all the workers?
According to the Associated General Contractors of America and Autodesk, 78% of construction companies are having difficulty hiring workers for roles like bricklayers, drywall installers, pipelayers, carpenters, sheet metal workers, and plumbers. It doesn’t help that the U.S. is short almost 6.5 million homes, and desperately needs the labor for housing projects. According to abc.org, in order to fill the construction worker gap, the industry must hire 342,000 additional workers (on top of normal hiring numbers). There are a variety of reasons for this gap, from hangover from the pandemic to a lack of training and exposure to trade education.
The Covid-19 pandemic had serious and lasting effects on the construction industry. The number of applicants for construction work fell a whopping 40% between 2019 and 2020 and has remained flat ever since. Like other industries, shutdowns, supply chain issues, and early retirement were all contributing factors to this trend. Despite covid-era savings and stimulus money dwindling, the construction industry did not recover the way other industries did when things began to open back up. Much of this is probably due to a cultural shift to remote work. The pandemic gave the workforce ample time and opportunity to switch from on-site to more flexible remote work.
Lack of Education and Training
One of the biggest challenges with the construction worker shortage is that in order to get more skilled workers, we have to have more people to train them. This is tricky because the U.S. is also facing a teacher shortage. And as noted by NPR: “it can be tough convincing laborers to leave their jobs for lower pay.” That is, convincing skilled construction workers making upwards of $85,000 a year to train students for about $50,000 is not easy. So, then the problem is twofold, without increased teacher salaries, we can’t expect more students to be able to get into construction at the rate we need.
An Aging Population
According to the trade association, one in four construction workers are over the age of 55. Furthermore, “Over 40% of the current U.S. construction workforce is expected to retire over the next decade.” With little interest and applications for construction work, this can only mean that unless something is done, the construction shortage likely won’t get better in the next decade from younger talent.
Some of the lack of interest in construction work can be attributed to a lack of exposure, or in other words, a lack of good publicity for construction work. According to an article in Builder, among 18-25 years old, only 3% said they wanted to work in construction. This is despite the fact that many construction jobs offer high job security (especially in the current market), competitive pay, and opportunities for career advancement. Some of this may be due to a stigma around construction work as well as the stress of physical labor. Clearly, these concerns need to be addressed.
How Can We Fix It?
Many of the aforementioned facts paint a dismal picture of the future of the construction labor market. But, there are strategies that could go a long way in attracting workers.
Investing in Education
While solving the teacher shortage is a much larger issue that companies can’t fix alone, investing in their own education and training programs can help recruit and keep young workers. Both hard and soft skills should be taught for better on-site safety and community. It can be difficult for construction companies to keep up with this training, particularly if they travel to worksites. Opening craft training sites and temporary trailers on-site with flexible programs is a good option.
Increased Worker Benefits
Young people entering the workforce are no longer just looking for a paycheck. In a poll done by EmployeeBridge reported by Built blog, while 40% of workers still consider pay the most important factor in their job search, good benefits are what will make them stay at a company for the long haul. Companies should consider benefits packages that address key concerns for job seekers like financial and physical health packages, emotional well-being programs, and flexible PTO.
It can be hard to imagine implementing all of these benefits at once, but companies can mitigate this by slowly adding new benefits to their packages and highlighting benefits that they already have. The key to retaining workers in an era where remote work is the norm, is to create a high quality of life for your employees. This will pay for itself in the long run by helping cut the cost of having to hire new employees and the time and money it takes to train them.
We are living in a time when new construction technology is advancing more than ever before. New innovations like AI, construction robots, cloud-based collaboration, augmented reality, and 3D printing used to sound like the stuff of science fiction. Today, all of these innovations and more are becoming available to ordinary construction companies. These technologies might replace some jobs, but the most important thing they can do is create new, more desirable jobs for new talent. For example, construction robots can replace more back-breaking, repetitive jobs like tying rebar, and allow workers to focus on other tasks.
None of this work to attract and retain employees will pay off unless people know about it. Companies should consider running recruitment campaigns to show off their competitive pay and benefits. Some ways to to this are:
- Advertising your company and its benefits online.
- Visiting high schools and vocational schools to educate students about career opportunities.
- Offering employee testimonials to those interested in applying to your company.
The bottom line is that young people entering the workforce want to work for a company that A) cares about their well-being, and B) has an eye toward innovative solutions to complex modern construction problems. By focusing on benefits and recruitment campaigns, companies might be able to make a dent in the construction workforce shortage.
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