The 2023 North American Iron Workers / Ironworker Management Progressive Action Cooperative Trust (IMPACT) Conference resumed on Tuesday in New Orleans. The event, which runs until Wednesday, hosts contractors, ironworkers and owners from North America to gather and learn.

The second day of the conference opened with a discussion on mental health. Josh Rizzo, consultant, veteran and recipient of multiple Construction Industry Under 40 awards, explained that suicide rates have long plagued the construction industry.

“For every construction fatality, there are five suicides,” he says. “We have to get people to that door. To get help. As leaders, we have to get people help.”

The second day of the 2023 North American Iron Workers / IMPACT Conference opened with a discussion on mental health.

Mental Health

The construction suicide rates (four times higher than the general population) have caused alarm throughout the industry. The CDC and other organizations have sought to raise awareness through suicide prevention safety stand-downs and week-long programs, such as Construction Suicide Prevention Week.

Jim Frederick, deputy assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), says that construction workers face many work-related stresses that increase suicide risk factors. These factors include uncertainty of seasonal work, demanding schedules and workplace injuries that are sometimes treated with opioids.

Rizzo explained that leaders and workers must keep their eyes open and notice the signs of distress. The signs include hopelessness, withdrawal from friends, dramatic mood swings, increased alcohol/drug usage, poor sleep and depression.

Rizoo explained that leaders of construction workers, ironworkers and glaziers need to offer clarity, show growth and display trust.

“We know people are struggling,” he said. “We have to take the ambiguity out of their lives. Nobody likes a pop quiz.”

He added that the biggest step for leaders is to learn and trust their people; to give workers some time and show them love.

Recessionary Concerns

In his Tom Cruise-themed presentation, Anirban Basu, chairperson and CEO of Sage Policy Group Inc., said that the current U.S. pain point is inflation. The Federal Reserve tries to solve this by shrinking the money supply through incremental rate hikes. The goal is to usher in a soft landing.

Basu explained that the economy might accelerate some thanks to the Fed’s bullish response to rising inflation. However, much of the inflation is labor related. Employers are struggling to fill jobs, which in turn increases wages.

Basu added that from 1980-2023, the percentage of people in the labor force has decreased, most notably among men between 16-19 (-23.2%) and 20-24 (-14.1). The lack of male participation is particularly devastating for construction jobs; however, the construction industry has still added some 270,000 jobs since the start of the pandemic-related recovery.

Despite several sectors rebounding, Basu said that there are still 11 million unfilled jobs in the U.S.

“If you want a job in America, two are waiting for you,” he said. “There’s a lot of demand for human capital.”

According to Basu, U.S. pain points will get worse before they get better. Borrowing costs are higher, as well as excess inflation persists. Some segments are improving, such as construction and multifamily housing. The Dodge Construction Network (DCN) reports that total construction starts increased by 27% in December, led by a 51% increase in nonresidential building starts. Richard Branch, the chief economist for DCN, says that manufacturing and infrastructure projects will provide insulation throughout 2023.

At some point, Basu said the Fed will stop raising rates, representing a key inflation point for the economy. Until then, recessionary conditions will prevail.

Technology = Progress

For Byron Reese, self-proclaimed futurist and entrepreneur, technology is the answer to solving most of the world’s challenges. Technology is essentially another word for progress, he said.

“It magnifies human abilities,” he added.

Technology has increased efficiency, safety and productivity on jobsites via drones, robotic manipulators, automated machines, and software. Reese said that for problems technical in nature, there will be solutions in the near future. It might not be tomorrow, but it’s just around the corner.

He cites a 1996 RadioShack ad featuring various products, such as a phone, portable CD player, computer, answering machine, and more. Within 10 years, all those products listed in that ad were replaced by one product — a cell phone.

For people worried that technology will replace jobs, Reese said that’s a valid concern. Technology has replaced workers throughout history, from the light bulb to bowling pin robots to refrigerators. However, Reese said there is a term for jobs that machines replace; it’s called dehumanizing. He says that technology, including automation, should instead create high-skilled jobs and destroy jobs at the bottom.

Reese offered one piece of advice. If a company is interested in a particular type of technology, wait. He said that even NASA will not use technology that is less than five years old.