A recent report by the Construction Industry Institute on productivity in the United States has raised questions, concerns and opened some eyes. To fully appreciate the new study, one needs to be aware of past studies. Starting in the 1960s, studies on production of American workers have been well documented. Most of these studies revealed that technology had increased non-farm productivity as much as 200 percent across the board. However, during the same period of time, the construction industry had actually dropped about 20 percent.
For years, it was generally assumed that labor unions were to blame and they routinely put the brakes on productivity in construction. The newest study throws a major wrench into that long-held belief. The result of a comprehensive study compiled after interviewing almost 2,000 craft workers has revealed some interesting findings.
The unfortunate result of the study concluded that productivity in construction has again slipped in recent years. This was confusing to the experts because if labor unions and their signatory contractors were to blame for the loss of productivity, why did productivity continue to decline as union market share fell at even a greater rate? Another interesting insight was that the craft workers interviewed on site knew that productivity had dropped and were equally unhappy and concerned about the future of their workplace.
The report concluded, “Craft persons want to be productive,” stated Chris Buck, president of Productivity Enhancement Resources. The vast majorities of craft workers want to produce more but were hampered by barriers or items beyond their control. Examples included no material handler to move drywall; waiting for a reply from the engineer or architect on unclear details or conflicts in specifications; fixing prefabricated items on site and looking for tools topped the list. It was noted by field personnel that “project teams lacked a sufficient understanding of the issues that kept craft workers off their tools.” Those of us who have spent time in the trenches have likely witnessed this firsthand.
The day of the seasoned and skilled journeyman being promoted to management seems to be over. Today, we have college graduates who went to school that understand computers, schedules and spread sheets. While they may be experts at crunching numbers, pushing schedules and theory, they lack the real knowledge of putting the pieces together and how to connect various components with little value placed on real field experience. But can we really blame the modern manager? He has much more on his plate than the construction manager of the 1970s did and the added task of risk shifting.
Another troubling issue is the “construction mentality” of the one who barks first and loudest wins. We all know the construction industry is filled with alpha types and unfortunately, too many want to prove they are the top dog. The lack of skilled supervision and management skills within the general contractor’s ranks has an impact on the general contractor’s bottom line—it is just not noticed immediately. The subcontractor generally feels the pain of poor or inexperienced supervision much faster than the general contractor but often has little control to do anything about it.
The continual loss in construction productivity is troubling and systemic: troubling for obvious reasons as costs continue to skyrocket out of control; systemic because we have so many outside factors that continue to contribute to this problem.
For subcontractors, much of the reason for loss in production is simply beyond their control. Buildings are getting more and more complex, and this complexity adds costs and will continue to bog down production. The public wants new and improved designs and architects will dream up more works of art but it comes at a cost. Convex multi-radius walls and ceilings are impressive and aesthetically appealing but they take extra time. Add the extra levels of safety requirements and protocols, some are beneficial, some are ridiculous but both add time and costs to projects.
More complex systems that require precision installation or value added materials again add costs. Upgrades that become standards, such as in California where hospitals are routinely framed using 16 gauge (54 mils) steel studs. These heavy gauge studs cannot be hand cut quickly like 20 gauge (33 mils) studs and this adds more time.
Today, new products/systems that did not exist a few decades ago add time and cost to projects. Is there a benefit to these additions? Only the future will tell us. But in the meantime, cut the craft people some slack out there. It is not all their fault costs have escalated out of control. Next time we complain about production rates, maybe we should look a bit further and deeper into why.