Craft Worker Shortage Continues as Construction Demand Ticks Up

More than two-thirds of construction firms in the U.S. are having difficulty filling hourly craft positions, according to industry-wide survey results released by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC). According to AGC CEO Stephen Sandherr, of the nearly 1,500 survey respondents, 69 percent are having difficulty filling these jobs.

“With the construction industry in most of the country now several years into a recovery, many firms have gone from worrying about not having enough work to not having enough workers,” Sandherr said during a conference call Wednesday. He said these shortages could undermine broader economic growth by forcing contractors to slow scheduled work or decide not to bid on projects, which could inflate construction costs.

Craft worker shortages are the most severe in the Midwest, where 77 percent of contractors are having a hard time filling those positions, the survey revealed. The South follows closely at 74, with the West at 71 percent and the Northeast 57 percent.

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A portion of the Associated General Contractors of America’s 2016 Workforce Survey results. (Courtesy of AGC)

According to AGC’s analysis, there are also selected shortages reported for other types of construction professionals, with 38 percent of firms having a hard time filling salaried field positions and 33 percent having difficulty filling salaried office positions. The five toughest-to-fill salaried jobs, according to the survey, are project managers/supervisors, estimating personnel, engineers, BIM personnel and quality control personnel.

“The bottom line is that many construction firms across the country are facing a significant workforce shortage, especially within the largest segment of the workforce: hourly craft workers,” the analysis reads. “These shortages are forcing firms to change the way they operate. They are learning to do more with fewer employees. They are increasing pay and benefits to better attract new employees. And they are becoming more efficient in the way they operate by embracing labor saving technologies and techniques. Yet these new efficiencies can only go so far for an industry that remains heavily labor intensive.”

Sandherr noted that the labor shortages come as demand for construction continues to grow. AGC reported that construction employment expanded in 239 out of 358 metro areas that the association tracks between July 2015 and July 2016, according to analysis of federal employment data.

In an effort to address the issue, 37 percent of respondents in AGC’s survey report getting involved with career-building programs in local schools. This outreach will be critical for the industry, according to AGC, as most firms have a low opinion of the current training pipeline for craft workers. Three-quarters of responding firms rated the new craft worker pipeline as poor or fair, while only 14 percent said it was good or excellent.

AGC officials were joined by industry professionals Wednesday the conference call to discuss the survey results. Nancy Munro of Kirkland, Wash.-based MidMountain Contractors Inc. and Scott Clark of R.W. Allen in Augusta, Ga., both noted the current high rate of employment for graduates of college programs in construction fields in their respective areas.

“It’s an extraordinarily competitive field and will be that way for some time to come,” said Clark. “… That’s the message for the young people out there. If you want a career opportunity, construction is it right now.”

Mike Dunham, CEO of AGC’s Georgia Chapter, added that the No. 1 initiative his organization has currently is reaching out to students and parents about opportunities in the industry available out of high school or vocational schools.

“Not everyone has to go to university and get a four-year degree,” he said, noting the massive student debt being accumulated and the difficulty many graduates face in getting jobs in their field of study. “Some of that is changing the hearts and minds of parents.” Dunham also pointed out that construction can provide a life-long career, as well as mobility, since those skill-sets can be taken anywhere in the country—where construction skills are widely needed.

Sandherr added that the construction industry offers “a unique opportunity of upward mobility” and the “satisfaction of building something every day.”

Participants in the call agreed these factors should be increasingly promoted to young people in order to turn around the trend of construction’s skilled labor shortage.

Sandherr also called on government officials to do their part in addressing the growing worker shortages. In particular, he urged Congress to reform and increase funding for the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, enact immigration reform and make it easier to set up charter schools and career academies that teach basic construction skills.

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