“So Much Work, So Few Workers to Do It”

Published: 17/6, 2019

By the time you read this issue of PDa, the construction season will be in full swing across most of North America. Each jobsite will also serve as a contractor’s personal proving ground of sorts, as productivity-enhancing features touted by manufacturers will be tested as never before. The reason, of course, is while construction remains strong in most parts of the Americas, contractors are scrambling to find enough skilled workers capable of turning those project opportunities into profits. 

And if staffing up seems challenging now, just wait. A recent Associated General Contractors’ survey found that while nearly 80% of construction companies are looking to hire more workers in 2019, the industry’s workforce is projected to grow by only half a percent each year through 2028.

The litany of reasons is well-known—a Recession-weakened labor pool that is being eroded by age-related attrition; perceptions (not all of which are accurate) of construction work among younger workers; competition from other industries facing their own worker shortages; local economic factors; etc.; etc.

Many industry associations are working to give construction a makeover of sorts, creating innovative educational programs designed to spark awareness of building trade careers among young people as early as possible, then nurturing their interest through increasingly more sophisticated—and fun—learning activities. Several states have launched efforts to enhance or revive vocational education programs aimed at recruiting and training new craft workers.

Meanwhile, there’s a move to automate some of the most tedious construction tasks. Front and center at this year’s Bauma was IronBot, a machine designed to lift, carry, and place rebar on bridges and wherever else reinforced concrete is being place. IronBot’s developers, who also created the autonomous rebar tying machine called TyBot, say the machine could be ready for sale sometime next year. And while autonomous vehicles may not be ready for the highway, they may have a place on closely controlled jobsites performing tasks such as shuttling materials or laying out boundaries.

All well and good for the not-so-far-off 2020s. But what about now? What about having enough workers to get through the summer? What about covering what’s going on now, and plus that job scheduled to start next week?

Sadly, there are no easy answers to those questions. The challenges facing contractors are surely shared, but their needs, circumstances, and options vary from one shop to the next. 

Maybe the best thing a contractor can do is focus on the workforce already in place. All it takes to find out what they need or want out of their jobs is simply to ask, and listen carefully to their responses. Pay increases may not be possible, but recognizing and rewarding workers with bonus days off, funding training opportunities, or just splurging on dinner for their families can go a long way toward building loyalty and keeping them focused rather than eyeing greener pastures. 

Keeping them up to date on how the business is running through regular meetings or impromptu Q&A sessions is also a good way to help them stay engaged in the business. Such dialogue may also yield some new ideas that will help save money, or provide an early heads-up to problems that might devolve into serious issues otherwise.

Approaches such as these may not solve all your workforce challenges, but fostering motivation and morale among employees will almost certainly make your firm a better place to work. And when that prospective employee with those coveted skills is comparing what your firm has to offer with other potential opportunities, guess which one he or she will choose? 


Jim Parsons, Senior Editor


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