The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, June 26, 2015

Construction worker shortage? New survey still says, 'maybe'

By The Building Tradesman

When we last asked that question about six months ago following an industry survey by the Associated General Contractors, the answer was "maybe." It depended on geographic location, industry sector and whether a shortage, if any, was seen as short-term or long-term.

This month, a survey related specifically to the nation's union workforce released by The Association of Union Constructors (TAUC) basically asked the same question. The results of the survey could be described as similar: "maybe."

The 10-question survey, taken in February, garnered nearly 1,000 responses from a cross-section of contractors, union representatives and owner-clients. Called  TAUC 2015: Union Labor Supply - Construction & Maintenance Industry, it's expected to turn into an annual effort, attempting to quantify and predict an industry that is notoriously resistant to any such attempts because of the spread-out and transitory nature of work in the building trades.

"The depth and breadth of the analysis is, in a word, impressive." said TAUC CEO Steve Lindauer. "Our sincere hope is that it will foster a new level of informed discussion between our tripartite partners, and better prepare the entire industry to face a number of workforce challenges in 2015 and beyond." Those challenges may or may not include worker shortages.

Here are a few major findings of the survey, which encompassed 14 construction crafts:

*It found that just over half of the respondents (52 percent) reported a labor shortage in 2014. Most (41 percent) said they experienced a small shortage, while others (11 percent) experienced a large shortage. Approximately a third (31 percent) said their union workforce was about the correct size, and the remainder (17 percent) indicated a surplus. With only half the nation experiencing worker shortages in organized construction, it's difficult to claim that it's a trend - much depends on the location.

*Those more directly responsible for staffing levels - contractors, construction managers and owners/clients - generally reported more of a labor shortage than did union/labor representatives.  Union/labor representatives and association employees were about three times more likely than others to report a labor surplus.

*Respondents in the "East North Central" region, which includes Michigan, expressed only modest amounts of concern over worker shortages. Meanwhile, greater concern was in the Mountain Northern Plains and Southeast regions. The New England and Southwest regions reported a small surplus of union craft workers.

*The survey found there were only minor differences between individual crafts when it came to worker shortages in 2014. Boilermakers were the most "scarce," with the industry reporting a modest 3.2 percent craft shortage. Iron Workers, Carpenters, Operating Engineers and Bricklayers were also on the "scarce" side of the equation, but all of them registered only 1.1 percent worker shortages or less. Only the Sheet Metal Workers and Teamsters (both 1.7 percent) were above 1.0 percent on the surplus side. Manpower needs for the rest of the crafts were found by the survey to be "about right."

*The construction industry, overall, was bullish on industry projections for 2015, with 72 percent of respondents believing there will be growth in construction and maintenance this year. The greatest growth was projected for the Southeast region (5.6 percent), followed closely by the Mountain Northern Plains (5.2 percent). Although growth was projected for all regions, on average, the East North Central had among the lowest growth projection, 2.6 percent.

With about half the unionized sector in the U.S. experiencing some sort of labor shortage last year, and with growth expected in the industry in the next few years, it's not a stretch to say that the industry could use a few good men and women. The comments section of the survey offered a few glimpses of what industry people in Michigan's region, the East North Central, are thinking.

"There is an aging union workforce in our area. Need to sell the idea of a career in crafts to our young people," said a contractor/subcontractor.

Wrote another contractor: "The trades are becoming an undesirable career path for many. Effort needs to be made to endear union craft in order to revitalize the rolls of our locals. Attention has to be given to the differences in organized and non-organized labor and the cost advantages to owners must be offset by the expectation of a higher grade professional workforce."

The report, in its conclusion, acknowledged the difficulty of making broad assumptions about the industry based on individual responses. "This report is a summary of individual perspectives. These perspectives, particularly about the future, are not necessarily the same as reality. Moreover, it is likely that the data from respondents regarding 2014 (the past) are more accurate than those about 2015 (the future)."

The Associated General Contractors have been waving the red flag for the last few years warning of a pending labor shortage in U.S. construction. The AGC has called for the federal government to widen access to, and easier establishment of, construction training programs.

“The last time the sector’s unemployment level was this low construction firms were scrambling to find enough workers,” said Associated General Contractors CEO Stephen E. Sandherr last month. “While the labor situation isn’t as dire as it was back in 2006, Washington must act soon before more firms struggle to find enough workers to meet demand.”