Activity is setting up nicely for commercial construction in 2015, but just as the industry seems to be back on its footing, the dreary recession of years past is giving us one last gasp of annoyance and pain. Believe me, no one will be happier than me when we can stop referencing the Great Recession that rocked the general commercial construction industry and the overall economy. Unfortunately, that time has not come yet.
While activity is good, the recession still hangs over us in the form of a commercial construction labor shortage. Between 2007-2009, the construction industry lost 2.3 million jobs. In fact, it’s fair to say that commercial general construction may have been the hardest hit sector of the economy.
Now, as contracts are coming back, skilled workers are in short supply.
In the past five years, commercial construction has lost skilled labors to a wide variety of places. Many immigrant workers have returned to their home countries or taken on work in other parts of the world, experienced commercial construction workers left the industry to pursue other careers, and a lot of accomplished skilled workers just decided to call it a day and retire.
This has had an adverse effect on our industry in two ways—as projects come back, they are on a slower timetable as it is often difficult to locate adequate subcontractors for a project, and, the price for commercial construction labor is often higher as many commercial general contractors are bidding for the services of the same subs.
The commercial construction industry needs workers of all backgrounds to fill in, but most importantly, it needs experienced commercial construction managers and operators. Yes, we need skilled electricians and plumbers, but what’s lacking the most seems to be the management positions. I’ve been in the commercial construction industry for 24 years and I still have no idea how to bend a conduit…it’s magic to me. However, I know how to manage an electrical team on site, while simultaneously managing foundation and drywall contractors. The managerial element of the industry is sorely lacking.
How do we fix this? Happily, as opportunities arise, the problem is beginning to sort itself out, but we are still a ways from being healthy. Here are three things that the commercial construction industry needs to do to fix the current construction labor shortage and get back to a balanced market.
- Apprenticeships need to increase. According to a recent Crain’s article, this is already happening. It couldn’t come at a better time. The industry needs a new batch of young, skilled commercial construction workers who know their way around a job site. With the proper training in an apprenticeship program, hopefully subcontractors will be able to staff up at a better rate.
- Veterans need to come back. The industry lost a lot of talent, especially on the management side, to premature retirement. Commercial construction was in a prolonged slump and many successful professionals thought it would be better to hang it up, rather than wait for the commercial construction industry to come back. With big new retail construction and restaurant construction projects in the pipeline, it would behoove commercial general contractors to approach some of these newly retired individuals and try to lure them back with high-paying opportunities.
- Align with education. Commercial general contractors in the Chicago area would be smart to partner with some of the great universities and colleges in the Midwest to offer internships to construction management students. Last year alone, Englewood had four interns—two in estimating, one in operations and one in accounting—from major Midwestern colleges. We feel it’s great to help mentor these young students, but also it gives us a chance to possibly help mold and shape future talent for our team. In baseball terms, we use it as our farm system.
Whether it is at the apprenticeship, management or internship level, mentoring is really the key to bolstering the commercial construction workforce. Learning is a process that should never stop and all commercial construction professionals should stay up-to-date with trends and code changes.
I remember back to my days as a young laborer and one of my mentors, Leopold Hanke. He came up through the ranks and went from apprentice to journeyman to foreman to superintendent. In his time, he had built nearly everything imaginable. I asked him once how he accumulated so much knowledge of the commercial construction industry and he said “Kid, I wake up every day with the goal of learning something new.”
I took that to heart and I approach my job the same way. If I’m lucky enough to pass that along to several young commercial construction workers in our industry, I’ll have done my part.
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