The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, May 31, 2019

Union construction still sees growth ahead - and labor shortages

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

Stop us if you've heard this one. 

The U.S. construction industry sees strong growth on the horizon. But labor shortages continue to weigh on the industry.

That's the headline from the annual Union Craft Labor Supply Study, released this month by the Association for Union Constructors (TAUC) in conjunction with the Construction Labor Research Council (CLRC). And it contains a familiar message, building on the first nationwide contractor survey by the TAUC back in 2015 that determined about half the unionized construction sector in the U.S. was experiencing some sort of labor shortage. That number has steadily risen: this year, 69 percent of U.S. contractors report having a "small" (54 percent) or "large" (15 percent) shortage of tradespeople.

The TAUC, comprised of more than 2,000 contractors who utilize union labor for their projects, said the annual study is "the only national, multi-craft, union-specific study focusing on construction and maintenance. The findings will help create a detailed, data-driven picture of the current state of the union craft labor supply throughout the United States. TAUC and its partners in labor believe that a data-driven approach is the only way to achieve our shared goals of planning for the future and increasing union market share."

The survey's respondents come from a wide swath of the construction industry, and include union representatives, contractors/subcontractors, construction managers, owners/clients and association employees. Following are some specific findings:

*The survey found that 76 percent of the 1,199 study participants projected growth for 2019 in the construction and maintenance industry, similar to last year's 78 percent. Those contractors projecting “strong growth” continued to increase in number, up to 25 percent this year. In 2015 just 9 percent expected strong growth.

 *The biggest optimists about the prospects for construction growth hail from the "Union/Labor Representatives" category, while those who provided the lowest prospective ratings for growth included "Owner/Clients." Likewise, respondents from smaller organizations (less than 1,000 employees) had somewhat more favorable predictions for industry growth than those from responses larger organizations (more than 1,000 employees).

*The overall worker shortage is real, but it isn't generally crippling. Indeed, more respondents reported that the union craft labor shortage in their organization in 2018 was greater than in previous years. However, in addition to the 54 percent of respondents who said they experienced a small shortage, 31 percent reported a surplus, or the right number of union crafts in their organization.

*Nationwide, the survey results show that the most frequently reported shortages for 2018 were among the Boilermakers, Carpenters & Millwrights, Iron Workers and Plumbers, Pipefitters & Steamfitters and Heat and Frost Insulators. All of these had at least 60 percent of the responses reporting a shortage of union craft workers - and 25 percent classified their shortage as a large shortage. "Interestingly, each of these crafts has welders, the number one reported needed skill," the TAUC said. 

*But there were worker shortages reported fairly consistently throughout all 14 building trades craft unions in 2018. In descending order after those crafts above, between 55-45 percent reported shortages were the Electrical Workers, Laborers, Operating Engineers, Bricklayers, Painters, Sheet Metal Workers, Roofers and Plasterers and Cement Masons. The Teamsters had the fewest reported shortages - a still-significant 24 percent

*The largest reported jump from 2017-2018 in reporting shortages took place among Boilermakers, Heat & Frost Insulators and Bricklayers & Allied Crafts. The smallest year-to-year shortages were reported among the Electrical Workers and the Roofers & Waterproofers.

*For 2019, the respondents predicted a correlation of future shortages among the various crafts along the lines of the shortages in 2018.

*Which crafts are short on apprentices? Atop the list, look to the Heat and Frost Insulators and the Boilermakers, where apprentice shortages were reported by about 65 percent of respondents in 2018. Other crafts not far behind with shortages reported by about 55 percent of respondents included the Iron Workers, Bricklayers, Carpenters, Painters and Laborers.

The crafts behind them in 2018, in descending order between 55-30 percent, were the Sheet Metal Workers, Electrical Workers, Pipe Trades, Roofers, Operating Engineers Plasterers and Cement Masons and Teamsters. 

*A new question for 2019 asked Contractors/Subcontractors and Construction Managers if the company they worked for did not bid on work because of concerns over the availability of union craft labor. "Close to half" of that group, the TAUC survey found, "said the union craft labor shortage limited the jobs for which their company tendered a bid." About 50 percent of the respondents said the lack of bids was because of a lack of electricians - about double the percentage of any other trade.  Following in the 20-25 percent range of respondents were the Pipe Trades, Iron Workers and Carpenters & Millwrights.