It’s been just over a year now since the world changed in ways we’ve never known before. Every type of business and industry—including construction—felt the drastic impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic. A year later, construction firms continue to experience challenges.
Robert Massey Jr., president and CEO of Massey’s Plate Glass Inc. in Branford, Conn., says COVID-19 has changed the daily construction world in which the glazing industry operates.
“The 6-feet rule is indeed a happening thing. The days of loading 20 people into a hoist car and up the building you go is now limited to the hoist car operator and maybe six people if you’re lucky,” he says. “This has caused downtime and inefficiencies. However like the world that we live and work in, it’s a new way of getting manpower, equipment and materials to the work floor that we will need to account for moving forward.”
Massey says installation of unitized panels, metal systems and glass and glazing in general can also be challenging when it comes to maintaining 6 feet of distance.
“We’ve invested in more versatile installation equipment to have less personnel on the installations where possible,” he adds.
In addition, Masseys has fitted every employee with N95 masks plus specialized hard helmets with built in face shields to ensure two layers of protection.
“Even after we are all vaccinated I see this as the new norm—less-crowded hoist cars and face masks remaining as PPE. We will all adjust for a safer work environment,” says Massey.
Scott Coulter, chief financial officer with Dynamic Glass in Dallas, says the biggest challenge they’ve faced related to COVID has been the overall uncertainty it’s created.
“On a day-to-day basis, we’ve had to deal with the changing protocols and disruptions caused by COVID. We were fortunate that the construction industry in Texas was able to operate throughout the pandemic, however, we’ve had to figure out ways to stay on schedule and consistently man projects throughout quarantine protocol requirements (which is hard enough in normal times),” he says. “Long-term, the bid market for new construction projects slowed considerably in 2020. While the market appears to be bouncing back, we don’t know how quickly and to what extent the commercial construction market returns to normal. With low visibility on the future, it’s difficult for us to invest in new people or growth initiatives.”
In addition to jobsite challenges, construction companies have also faced increasing materials costs, supply-chain problem, and project deferrals and cancellations. The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) addressed these issues in its most recent survey addressing the coronavirus and its impact on construction.
“The survey results make it clear that the construction industry faces a variety of challenges that threaten to leave many firms and workers behind, even as some parts of the economy are recovering or even thriving,” said Ken Simonson, chief economist. “The pandemic has left the supply chain for a range of key construction components in tatters and undermined demand for a host of private-sector projects.”
According to the survey, the majority of disruptions and delays have been due to material shortages. The results showed the following:
• Shortage of construction materials, equipment, or parts: 52%
• Shortage of craftworkers/subcontractors: 32%
• Potentially infected person visited jobsite: 25%
• Shortage of personal protective equipment: 8%
• Difficulties securing financing or covering cash flow needs: 6%
• Shortage of government workers: 6%
• Nor shortage or delays currently: 29%
Respondents attributed the majority of these delays to backlogs or shutdowns at domestic producers (90%); backlogs or shutdowns at foreign producers (52%); rail or truck delays from ports to delivery points (34%); and delays at ports (32%).
According to Simonson, 93 percent of the survey’s respondents said the pandemic has driven up their costs. Four out of five are spending more on personal protective equipment, sanitizers, and other health-related expenses, and more than half said projects are taking longer than previously.
“Costs and delayed deliveries of materials, parts, and supplies are vexing many contractors,” Simson added. “Nearly 85 percent report those costs have increased over the past year. In addition, nearly three-fourths of the firms are currently experiencing project delays and disruptions, mainly due to shortages of materials, equipment or parts.”
More than three-fourths of the firms report having projects canceled or postponed in the past year, including more than one out of five with a 2021 project that was canceled or postponed. Meanwhile, only one-fifth of respondents say they have won new projects or add-ons to existing projects as a result of the pandemic.
“The prevalence of those shortages varies by project type,” says Simonson. “About six out of 10 building contractors reported shortages of materials, equipment or parts, compared to roughly five out of 10 firms doing utility infrastructure or federal and heavy construction … In contrast to the nearly universal reports of higher costs, just under one out of three firms reports any cost savings as a result of the pandemic. Most of those firms cited reduced travel costs, while only 5% say they have achieved savings through new or expanded use of jobsite techniques or technologies.”
In addition, about one-third of firms say business matches or exceeds year-ago levels, while another third say it will take more than six months to reach that mark; one-fifth say they don’t know. Simonson reported that respondents in the Northeast are the most pessimistic about the outlook, followed by firms in the South. Those in the Midwest are split along the same lines as the full survey, while respondents in the West are more optimistic, on balance.
“Despite these differences in experience to date and the near-term outlook, contractors from all regions, project types, and firm sizes are almost equally bullish about their hiring expectations over the next 12 months,” Simonson added. “Across nearly all subgroups, roughly three out of five respondents expect to add employees over the coming 12 months. Only 10 to 15 percent of firms in any category expect to reduce their headcount.”