Construction Is Booming Now but Without New Workers and Tech Its Future Is Uncertain
The industry must draw its next generation of workers, female and male, from the ranks of tech and STEM students.
The U.S. construction market is booming with no signs of slowing down. According to the USG Corp. and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Commercial Construction Index, 93 percent of contractors expect to see equal or greater profit margins in the next year. The question is how much of those profits will the construction industry invest back into the workforce.
As construction work has increased, the construction labor market has actually been in decline over the past 40 years, as has productivity. While the majority of contractors say they will hire new employees in the coming months, almost all are having a difficult time hiring skilled workers. And this isn’t expected to subside. About half of those surveyed reported that their ability to hire skilled workers will likely worsen.
This diminished supply of construction workers will ultimately have a significant impact on the development and renovation of buildings that house critical infrastructure like laboratories, hospitals, schools, dormitories, businesses and more. So, as the supply gap begins to impact other industries, how can the construction industry move forward in order to prevent negative effects on the overall economy? Here are some ways.
Advance STEM jobs and education.
We need to continue our recent investment more heavily in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Many of the most valuable construction workers have an understanding of the science and engineering involved in projects. This empowers them to make more informed decisions about everything, from which building materials are healthiest to how the different materials affect one another.
To attract and support workers with this background to enter the industry, it’s important to place an emphasis on STEM education and careers. The ACE Mentor Program of America Inc. is a high school mentorship program for STEM students who are interested in construction, architecture and engineering. It is the construction industry’s fastest growing high school mentor program, reaching over 8,000 U.S. students in the 2016-2017 school year alone.
Attract more women to the field.
A specific area where advancing STEM jobs can lead to broad dividends for the construction industry is by undertaking a concerted outreach to recruit more women. The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that industry-wide, women make up nine percent of the construction industry -- an indication that there’s clearly room for improvement.
One way to make a tangible difference is by creating and funding college scholarships for women to pursue STEM careers. By making a stronger connection between STEM jobs and careers in construction, the industry has an opportunity to reach more women, as well as others in STEM fields who can help take the industry to the next level. Attracting, hiring and promoting women will diversify the industry, increase awareness and help to change stereotypes about our male-dominated profession.
However, the industry as a whole has a long way to go to create a working environment that is safe and a culture that is welcoming to women. In December, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration renewed its alliance with the National Association of Women in Construction to continue to promote safe and healthful working conditions and prevent hazards that are specific to women such as a lack of personal protection equipment, sanitation and workplace intimidation. The sooner we foster an environment that protects and respects all workers, including women, the sooner we will close the gender gap.
Encourage craftsmanship training.
We need to change the perception that you can’t make a good living as a laborer. The reality is that a career construction laborer can make a good living, while not saddled with the debt of a four-year college education. The average salary for a mid-career construction laborer is more than $59,000, six percent higher than the average salary of a mid-career clinical laboratory scientist.
Jobs in the construction field will be among the fastest growing between 2012 and 2022, according to recent projections. As demand for labor grows, it’s crucial that craftspeople are receiving specialized training. These people can provide project leaders with more accurate budget information, assist with material selection, find ways to streamline the overall process and reduce costs. Buildings are becoming more complex. Training skilled craftspeople requires programs that combine classroom training and on-the-job experience, and are most successful when led or supported by companies invested in training their workforce.
Internal training programs should include a wide range of technical subjects as well as on-the-job coaching. For example, Consigli University offers its 800 employees more than 10,000 hours of training through more than 150 classes covering a wide range of technical subjects. For companies that can’t offer training programs in-house, tuition reimbursement programs or training through industry groups can be beneficial. And craftsmanship training doesn’t need to be siloed to those who have already chosen a career in construction: It should start in high school and doesn’t have to be at vocational schools. By exposing young students to the construction industry, we can raise awareness and get a new generation excited about opportunities in the trades.
Incorporate new technologies to innovate.
Historically, construction has not been perceived as a particularly innovative industry, but that is no longer the case. Today, new construction technologies are being incorporated onto job sites to create more effective collaboration, allow teams to make better informed decisions and avoid problems before they happen.
The use of virtual, augmented and mixed reality allows construction teams to better visualize and simulate construction details and sequences. For example, 3D virtual mock-ups can be utilized to model complex construction details and even entire spaces ahead of time. The teams “experience” them in virtual reality to identify and solve issues long before construction begins. Furthermore, it allows the end user to also “experience” their space and buy in to the concept before a shovel breaks ground. Investing in emerging construction technology can streamline the construction process, while also making use of younger workers’ pre-existing technology skills.
The construction industry’s impending labor shortage is actually an opportunity to grow and develop the workforce. By promoting craftsmanship training, advancing STEM jobs and identifying new ways to incorporate new technologies for growth and innovation, the construction business can strategically combat the labor shortage and set the industry up for success. In particular, reaching students while they’re young is key so that we can educate them about career opportunities. And it’s crucial that contractors encourage employees to retain craftsmanship and continue professional development even when momentum is a little slower. There is always a need for skilled workers regardless if the economy is in a boom or bust cycle.
As the backbone of our society, construction impacts nearly every industry directly or indirectly -- whether it’s building new labs to foster scientific discoveries, hospitals to tend to our sick or injured, or modern classrooms to learn. It’s crucial that we support systemic efforts to close the construction labor gap. By addressing the roots of the construction labor gap, we will ultimately improve productivity with quality staff and make the industry stronger for future generations.