In late August, the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) released the results of a survey they conducted that asked construction companies nationwide about their ability/struggles to find and retain qualified workers. The results were predictably dismal. In Massachusetts, 80% of respondents said they have difficulty filling both salaried and hourly positions. But this is nothing new. Our industry has been predicting the demise of qualified workers for more than a decade now. The questions we need to answer now are how did we get here and what can we do to turn it around?
How Did We Get Here?
There are several factors that have contributed to the current state of affairs.
- The recession in 2008 played a big role in reducing the number of entry level workers as construction work slowed and companies began laying off workers and freezing new hiring. While the most recent economic boom has certainly helped our industry, the pool of qualified candidates has dwindled and the demographics are such that a significant portion of the workforce was or is poised for retirement.
- Labor unions have limited the workforce by implementing stricter licensing rules for all trades to keep control of their domain. This is particularly true in Massachusetts where the labor unions are strong but facing declining enrollment. For example, plumbers and electricians used to receive their journeymen’s license in two years and now, it is five years.
- One change that really hits home for us is the sheet metal licensing law put into place. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has mandated that the installation of sheet metal roofs and siding – such as those, installed on pre-engineered metal buildings (PEMB) – must be done by licensed sheet metal installers. It seems logical, but the problem is that the majority of sheet metal workers have never installed these items nor are they interested in doing such work that has been done by pre-engineered metal building erectors since the inception of PEMB.
- In addition, the educational system places an increased focus on all students matriculating to college to obtain a two or four year degree. While this is an admirable goal, it doesn’t take individual talents and potential into account. Some students are much better suited to working in the trades and that path should be encouraged and celebrated equally.
What Can We Do?
We can’t sit back and wring our hands and hope this labor shortage crisis turns around on its own. The trends are going the wrong way and we need to come together as an industry to find the right path forward. According to an article in the Bangor Daily News, “part of ACG’s plan is to help solve the shortage by promoting education, training and in some cases, encouraging that construction companies add more technology to improve efficiency.”
We should also reach out to our legislatures to remind them that every economy needs to produce more than theory and you need bodies to produce “stuff.” Too many rules and regulations result in labor shortages like the one we’re seeing now. It’s contingent on us to fight back and demand change. No one else is going to do it for us.