The fundamentals of the commercial construction industry are strong and industry leaders are largely optimistic about the future of the sector, according to the latest USG Corporation + U.S. Chamber of Commerce Commercial Construction Index (CCI). Contractors report a healthy pipeline of new business and more than 50 percent expect to hire more people in the next six months.
But behind the headline numbers, one of the most persistent challenges in the construction industry is first recruiting, then training and retaining, skilled workers. Like manufacturing and other trade industries, the construction sector is grappling with an aging workforce, as well as a gender and skilled labor gap, which is causing builders to turn down work, submit higher bid levels and struggle to meet deadlines.
This problem is not a new one. Issi Romem, a chief economist at construction data firm BuildZoom, examines how the housing bust of the early 2000s contributed to today’s construction labor shortage and calls the loss of young construction workers during that time “a scar from which the construction industry has yet to recover.”
The latest CCI numbers show 46 percent of contractors still have a “high concern” about the availability of skilled labor and 85 percent are equally concerned over the cost of labor. At the same time, contractors say their pipelines of new business are strong, which means there will be no letup in demand for new workers. While the industry may still be recovering from the housing downturn, shop classes have disappeared from schools and, each year, more kids are encouraged to pursue four-year degrees instead of trade careers.
The public perception is that construction work is dirty, requires only brute strength and is a job — not a career — requiring neither training nor skills, according to data from the CCI. Yet, if you ask contractors about the best reasons to pursue a career in construction, they say the earnings potential and opportunities for advancement.
This dichotomy presents a very real and urgent opportunity for industry leaders to rebuild the reputation of trade careers and usher in a new generation of skilled workers. One practical way to accomplish such a seemingly lofty goal is by reintroducing vocational training and increasing enrollment in technical schools. A better reputation for compensation, apprenticeship programs and opportunities for advancement is also needed — particularly for those workers under the age of 30.
To bridge the labor gap in the near future, the industry can implement technology on the jobsite that will empower workers, streamline processes and create a safer work environment. In some cases, manufacturers can also assist by increasing the pace of innovation and adding new technologies, which will expand the capabilities of the existing workforce. For example, USG constantly looks for ways to introduce products that are lighter and, therefore, can take a step out of the process due to having ensured quality and safety at the plant instead of on the jobsite.
All industry professionals play a role in finding solutions to these workforce challenges. If they do, the industry will continue to have a meaningful impact on boosting the American economy, upskilling workers and providing cutting-edge buildings that improve how people live, work and play.