Construction Recovery Has Industry Eager to Expedite Talent Pipeline

The work is back. Now, it’s a matter of finding people to do it.

By most accounts, the construction industry has been making steady progress in 2014 in its recovery from the economic downturn of the last decade. But the industry is unique in the way it has responded, as it is now facing a switch from too many workers and not enough work to too much work and not enough workers.

Stephen E. Sandherr, chief executive officer at the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), explains.

“After the downturn, the overall economy, especially in the energy sector, started adding jobs well before the construction industry started adding jobs,” he says. “As a result, many former construction workers found jobs in other sectors of the economy. At the same time, many other construction workers have begun retiring with, similar to the rest of the workforce, so many members of the Baby-Boom generation working in the industry.”

That trend was not lost on the glazing sector.

“One of the great tragedies of the last few years is all the great talent that left the industry,” says Mac Hines, president of Illinois Glassworks LLC in the Chicago area. “That was very difficult to watch. … And once they leave to try something else, you’ve sort of lost them for good.”

With glazing being such a niche sector of the industry, finding top talent becomes an even bigger hurdle.

“To find glaziers, which is a top profession in the construction industry, is tough enough, but to find top glaziers in the industry is really a challenge,” says Hines. “We have complex projects, and we need the best glaziers to do them right. It’s that simple.

“To use a sports comparison: There are lots of people who can throw 60-mile-per-hour fastballs. Fewer can throw it 80 miles-per-hour, and a precious few can throw 90 mile-per-hour fastballs.”

There is, however, an obvious silver lining to the more-work/fewer-workers dilemma. To put it simply, there are jobs to be had as demand increases.

“The challenge is firms won’t be able to take advantage of rebounding demand if they don’t have enough workers to do the job,” says Sandherr. “Already roughly 25 percent of firms tell us they have turned down at least one project already because of a lack of workers.”

Adds Hines, “I can’t speak to the whole industry, but our backlog right now is as strong as it’s ever been. … Our book of business grows and grows every day.”

The pipeline of recruits and trainable prospects has also shrunk due to school districts across the country shutting down vocational education programs, leaving few high school students exposed to the career opportunities the construction industry presents, says Sandherr.

“As a result, once the construction industry started hiring, it turns out there were not that many construction workers sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring,” he adds.

AGC recently crafted a construction industry workforce development plan, which can be found here, that identifies a range of steps federal, state and local officials can take to make it easier for schools, construction associations and private firms to establish career and technical education and training programs. AGC is slated to release updated data on the matter later this month.

“If we can get action on this plan we will give many students who may not be eager to amass large amounts of college debt an alternative path to a successful, and high-paying career,” says Sanherr.

Despite the challenges the industry faces as it continues its recovery, there is a sense of positivity in the air. After all, there is work to be had.

“I’m optimistic and enthusiastic about the construction industry,” says Hines. “I think there have been some lessons learned.”

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