The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, May 20, 2016

The state of the construction unions: Survey finds optimism for job prospects, mixed outlook for worker shortages

By The Building Tradesman

Is there a shortage of construction workers in the U.S.? The Associated General Contractors keeps hammering home their position that yes, there is, and they urge that channels to training opportunities be widened to get more workers into the building trades.

But a survey of the entire union construction industry released last month presents a much more muddled picture of the nation's building trades job market. A majority of respondents agree that work prospects are good for U.S. construction in 2016, but what little consensus exists on the existence of craft shortages is highly dependent on geographic location and work prospects for individual crafts.

The Association for Union Constructors' (TAUC) 2016 Union Labor Supply Survey utilized a questionnaire emailed to 5,892 construction and maintenance professionals in the TAUC's database on Jan. 18, 2016. The TAUC said a total of 792 individuals responded, representing a variety of roles in their organizations, industries, and geographic regions. The group's first survey was released last year, and in many ways, the results were similar. The questions in the survey were aimed at gleaning information about construction growth opportunities and labor supply in 2016.

Following are some of the nuts and bolts of the 2016 survey:

*Optimism. The survey results clearly show that union management (i.e., association representatives, construction managers, contractors/subcontractors, owner/clients) have less optimistic evaluations about the future of the industry's growth prospects this year, and of the future availability of skilled workers, than do "union/labor" representatives.

Conversely, the union/labor contingent answering the survey was more positive about growth prospects and the least concerned about union craft labor shortages.

*Union craft labor supply. The survey across all the groups showed an average of 44 percent feel the industry's workforce is "the right size," while a "small shortage" is expected by a range of 24 percent to 33 percent of all those surveyed. Those expecting a "large shortage" of workers never exceeded 14 percent of construction associations, construction managers, contractors and subcontractors and owners/clients. At the low end, only 4 percent of union/labor expect a "large shortage" of workers.

When it comes to a potential labor surplus, to the largest extent, at 27 percent, the union/labor category predicted a labor surplus in their workforce this year. Only 7 percent of contractors/subcontractors and owner/clients predicted a labor surplus.

Industry growth prospects. Nearly 80 percent of the union/labor respondents in the survey predicted "growth" or "strong growth" for the construction industry this year. Also optimistic were construction managers, contractors/subcontractors and owner/clients - among them, 60 percent saw 2016 as a year of growth or strong growth. Construction association respondents were most pessimistic, with 60 percent predicting an industry contraction in 2016.

Regional variation. Of course, when it comes to construction employment, it's all about location, location, location. The TAUC survey said the greatest growth this year was projected for three of the four corners of the United States: New England, the Southeast and the Northwest.

"New England and the Southeast had elevated concerns regarding staffing levels compared to other regions; thus, combined with their stronger growth expectations, those regions may be expected to have some of the strongest challenges meeting union labor craft supply needs," the TAUC survey said. "The low growth prospects for the largest region, the East North Central region (which includes Michigan) were met with lower shortage ratings as well, so labor supplies may be less stressed there than other regions."

In our "East NorthCentral Region," about 38 percent of respondents predicted construction industry "growth" this year, about 23 percent predicted "strong growth," 20 percent see a "contraction," and 19 percent think a "strong contraction" is in store for 2016.

In the same region, respondents predict the union labor market in 2016 will experience a "surplus" - 12 percent; is the "right size" - 34 percent; will experience a "small shortage" - 45 percent, and will see a "large shortage" - 9 percent.

*What crafts have shortages? Nearly a quarter of the respondents nationwide reported a shortage of at least four percent in their organization. Carpenters, plumbers/pipefitters/steamfitters and electricians exhibited the largest shortage pervasiveness. Teamsters had the smallest percent of respondents reporting a shortage in their organization. Only three crafts - boilermakers, carpenters and iron workers - had a smaller reported worker shortage in 2016 than in 2015.

The TAUC concluded that the survey brings information to light, but with only two years of results to look at, the trend lines aren't clear. The most glaring example is that for more than half the survey's respondents, there is a labor supply issue - and it's either a surplus or a shortage.

"These results beg the questions: How do these results for the current time period (2015 and 2016)

compare to other time periods?" the TAUC said. "Are these results to be interpreted as benign, somewhat concerning or alarming? What are 'normal' or baseline results to which these data can be benchmarked?

Since this is only the second year for this report, answers to those questions are not fully available."