The most pressing and long-term issue for construction is the labor shortage of skilled workers. It is clear millennials are vast in numbers but not as much interested in a construction career unless they are in the technology and innovation sectors. Gen Z and Gen Alpha are not likely to be helpful as their numbers will be insufficient. Consider the birthrate for the U.S. (with no migration) needs to be at 2.08 per female to sustain current population levels. In 1960, the birth rate was 3.65; in 2020, it dropped to a record low of 1.75. Where are the construction workers going to come from?
The story of the labor shortage is not new and the focus has been to increase productivity to overcome this lack of workers. The issue and concerns about improving productivity in construction are not new. Design-Build was developed—and once predicted—that all work would be Design-Build and thus, the problems would be history. Then came Integrated Project Delivery, Lean, BIM, etc., all promising to be the solution to productivity in construction issues. Did any of these plans deliver as predicted? Did costs lower and productivity increase? While all of these plans have helped, has anyone suggested apprenticeship efforts with mentorship for the crew doing the work as a solution?
The workers in the field have been surveyed and have opinions on how to improve productivity in construction. Unfortunately, these surveys fall on deaf ears. Many experts feel the craft worker is not capable of comprehension, has little to offer in solutions and gets ignored. For experts who claim they came from the field, a summer job in construction does not make you a journeyman.
Technology, innovation and prefabrication is all the rage in construction today. Articles, webinars and companies selling products on the cutting edge are impossible to ignore. Will this movement improve productivity enough to solve the labor shortage today and into the future? Only time will tell, but I fear it will come up short.
The first mistake is a failure to comprehend the extent of complexity with constructing a building fully. Many think if we can do it with planes and cars, why not buildings? Buildings are not created in a factory under exacting conditions with one entity. Buildings require a variety of specialty subcontractors. Prefabrication seems the obvious solution, similar to planes and cars; prefabrication involves perfection. Prefabricated units are meant to fit dimensions and integrate with exacting precision. While it works on paper or on the computer screen, the reality is another world. This is the nature of construction that is overlooked or ignored.
Historically, the skilled craft worker makes adjustments to adapt products to fit as required. This is why site-built construction requires skilled trade workers. Prefabrication of significant parts will always require making fixes or on-site adjusting. Low-paid workers are not going to make it happen—it must be done with workers that possess knowledge and experience in their craft; we call them journeymen.
An Obvious Solution?
Now consider car and plane manufacturers provide more training for their employees than the construction industry does and the problem seems obvious. Until we get serious about training and education of craft workers, the problem is not likely to get solved. There is a massive effort on training underway. Unfortunately, it is mainly with technology and innovation programs. Maybe they will walk to the site and install what they input into the computer: problem solved.
The shift away from industrial arts to computer science courses changed everything for construction. Older craft workers will confirm the younger craft workers are not well versed in understanding the “why” of what they do. What do the crews in the field say? They want to produce more too. They claim they waste time looking for materials, tools or equipment. Why do the construction experts ignore them? Consider the old saying, “One does not know what one does not know.”
In addition, society has praised the computer and turned its nose up to construction craft workers. Maybe having more true craft workers understanding why it works or fails would be helpful. Even prefabricated panels, trusses or corners will need field adjusting; this requires educated and trained craft workers who understand the why and how things work.
Fifty years ago, we had that industry; they understood the why and could adapt quickly to make it work. Architects put out poor details back then, as some still do today. The difference was the guys in the field knew how to shift and make it work. Today, that cannot happen for a variety of reasons. I hope the lawyers, technology experts and innovators can grab a hammer, trowel or screw gun to show us how to obtain perfection soon because construction’s future is counting on them to deliver attainable perfection.