The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, September 06, 2019

New survey highlights, again, national construction worker shortage

By The Building Tradesman

The U.S. construction industry needs workers. 

That statement has been repeating itself as frequently as a broken record in recent years, as older Hardhats have started collecting pension checks en masse and potential younger replacements have proven hard to attract in many states and among various trades.

The latest evidence of this comes in the form of nationwide survey results released Aug. 27 by Autodesk and the Associated General Contractors of America, which found that 80 percent of U.S. construction firms "are having a hard time filling hourly craft positions."

Of the nearly 2,000 survey respondents, 80 percent of contractors said they are having difficulty filling hourly craft positions. All four regions of the country are experiencing similarly severe craft worker shortages, with 83 percent of contractors in the West and South reporting a hard time filling hourly craft positions, almost identical to the 81 percent rate in the Midwest and 75 percent rate in the Northeast.

"Workforce shortages remain one of the single most significant threats to the construction industry," said Stephen E Sandherr, AGC's chief executive officer.

The survey revealed that 73 percent of firms report it will continue to be hard, or get even harder, to find hourly craft workers over the next 12 months. "One reason for their worries," the AGC/Autodesk survey says, "is that contractors are skeptical of the quality of the pipeline for recruiting and preparing new craft personnel. Forty-five percent say the local pipeline for preparing well-trained and skilled workers is poor. And 26 percent say the pipeline for finding workers who can pass a drug test is poor."

The survey broke down statewide results where there were enough contractors who participated in the survey, and Michigan (26 contractor respondents) was one of them. 

In Michigan:

*The number of respondents who said they were " having a hard time filling some or all positions" was 73 percent for craft personnel, a bit below the Midwest average. Conversely, 15 percent of responding contractors said they "are having no difficulty filling any positions" and 12 percent reported "we have no openings."

*There were enough Michigan contractor respondents to draw conclusions about worker shortages in some of the construction crafts, but not all.  But overall, when asked to compare the filling of positions for various trades  compared to one year ago, at least 33 percent of Michigan contractors surveyed said filling positions "is more difficult," for every single craft. 

*Among selected trades whose employers provided a more significant number of responses, hiring heavy equipment operators, was cited as being more difficult than last year by 58 percent of firms surveyed, the highest percentage on the list. Similar responses were given regarding the laborers (55 percent); cement masons (54 percent); "concrete workers" (47 percent); drywallers (44 percent), and carpenters (40 percent). 

There wasn't enough of a Michigan-based contractor response to assess demand for the other trades.

Some other findings revealed by the survey:

*Labor shortages are prompting many firms to boost pay and compensation. Two-thirds of construction firms report they have increased base pay rates for craft workers. And 29 percent report they are providing incentives and bonuses to attract craft workers. 

*Firms are taking a greater role in developing their own workforce. Forty-six percent report that they have launched or expanded in-house training programs and half report getting involved in career building programs.

"Construction workforce shortages are prompting many firms to innovate their way to greater productivity," said Allison Scott, head of construction integrated marketing at Autodesk. "As the cost of labor continues to increase and firms look to become even more efficient, technology can enable better collaboration and ultimately lead to more predictable outcomes. There is also opportunity in untapped pools of talent such as tradeswomen, veterans, and young people looking for an alternative to the traditional four-year university."

*Scott noted that 29 percent of firms report they are investing in technology to supplement worker duties. One-fourth of firms report they are using cutting-edge solutions, including drones, robots and 3-D printers. Meanwhile, 23 percent of firms report they are taking steps to improve jobsite performance by relying on lean construction techniques, using tools like Building Information Modeling and doing more off-site prefabrication.

*Even as the industry works to address labor shortages, 44 percent of firms report they are increasing construction prices and 29 percent are putting longer completion times into their bids for new work because of the lack of workers, putting future development and infrastructure projects at risk.