An industrywide shortage of skilled professionals and craftsmen in building construction has moved from a critical problem to a chronic one, forcing general contractors and subcontractors to reimagine how they recruit, retain and enable key staff.
In an industry that already faced staffing shortages before the pandemic limited the size of the workforce, construction businesses will need to hire 430,000 professionals this year and 1 million more over the next 2 years in order to keep up with demand, according to Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC). Nearly nine in 10 firms are experiencing project delays, and 61% of these firms say workforce shortages are to blame, a survey by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) found.
This shortage is often attributed to a lack of shop classes in high school education, as well as an aging construction workforce — the average age is 43, according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), compared to 38.9 for industries across the board. But these explanations overlook another key contributor: the requirements of the job itself.
Why Talent Shortages Will Be an Ongoing Challenge
Due to the persistent error rate in the construction industry, which results in costly and time-consuming rework, the industry has had to marshal resources and restructure itself to largely focus on fixing instead of building.
No one goes into construction because they want to file paperwork, document and fight over errors and litigate — that’s the job, in many cases, of a lawyer. Often, people are drawn to the industry because they want to build things, change skylines and leave valuable and generational evidence of their efforts.
But the industry today is out of balance: The requirements and demands of the construction profession have grown in complexity, and this has placed an increased emphasis on documentation, error tracking, conflict resolution and litigation.
With errors and rework accounting for a substantial portion of the total cost (up to 20%) and time (up to 30%) of commercial construction, according to McKinsey, everyone from superintendents to project managers and project executives are experiencing burnout and questioning their careers.
There are three key reasons for this overload:
1. Overtime — Errors, by their very nature, place limits on the construction process. Errors tend to compound, leading to inefficiency and overtime. More time at work means more stress and less time at home.
2. Stress — Errors are much harder to manage than planned constructive work. They require unplanned resources from partners, which stresses working relationships and creates conflict. Never knowing which errors or problems will arise puts everyone in a stressful state of constant preparedness for problems.
3. Unsatisfying work — So much of construction work now relies on the documentation of work instead of doing the work itself. Current construction technology keeps people in front of their computer screens, doing paperwork and tracking requests for information (RFIs). For people who chose a career because they wanted to build, job satisfaction levels can take a hit because of so much time spent documenting and reviewing errors.
That’s all to say that solving the talent shortage has as much to do with job satisfaction as it does with hiring new employees. Because of this, solving the talent shortage will require a broader approach than an influx of new blood.
How to Mitigate the Effects of the Skilled Labor Shortage
Because the talent shortage is a long-term trend, not an in the moment challenge, it’s important for industry leaders to consider how changes in technology, tools and processes can help them keep key staff positively engaged.
The following four steps can provide exponential rewards on your jobsites:
- Reduce the errors and rework affecting day-to-day requirements on the job. Get it right the first time by employing technologies and processes that keep people and teams building rather than going back and reworking. Make sure that manual quality assurance and quality control programs are proactive in nature — for example, issue prevention rather than issue inspection and correction. Building information modeling (BIM) can also be used as a proactive tool when field installations are prechecked against BIM drawings.
- Do more with the same number of people. Adopt new technologies to improve performance for teams and individuals. A 2018 survey by AGC and Autodesk found that one-fourth of firms are adopting methods to reduce on-site work time, including the use of proactive quality construction techniques, virtual tools like digital construction verification (DCV), augmented reality (AR) and labor-saving equipment like exosuits.
- Make sure that the technologies you are adopting are reducing, rather than adding to, the workload; digital photos, for example, are just a partial solution, as they still require people to manually compare to act on an issue at a construction site. If you’re using technology, it should inherently reduce the documentation burden because it leaves a digital trail, or as others have labeled it, a “system of record.” DCV offers considerable potential to enhance employees’ experience on the job by leveraging machine learning to enable your people to take corrective action during construction to eliminate rework with preverification of layout dimensions and qualities, workmanship and the omission or misplacement of elements.
- Shift from reactive rework and documentation to developing high-performance people and outcomes. Understand where the skill gaps exist in your organization, then consider how your current employees might be trained to fill those needs. For example, AGC has forecast that advances in technology will reduce the need for some low-skill staff workers and enable others, particularly those that have or are able to develop technical skills, to perform the jobs that middle-skill staff currently perform. What’s more, investing in ongoing training for staff not only enhances the quality of the work performed but also increases retention. Larger companies often offer in-house training, while smaller ones are more likely to partner with an outside organization such as AGC or the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER).
By removing the parts of their job that are counterproductive and lead to drudgery, you will be investing in and leveraging your greatest asset — your people.