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WHY THE US CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY STILL FACES SKILLS CHALLENGES DESPITE RECOVERY

Author: Chris McCay

Published date: 2020/12

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According to an Associated Builders and Contractors analysis of US Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the construction industry added 26,000 jobs in September. Over the last five months, more than 689,000 construction jobs have been added, accounting for approximately 64% of the jobs lost since the start of the pandemic. 

Despite this slight upturn in employment, recovery in construction is set to be a slow process. The speed at which COVID-19 struck, coupled with its far-reaching impact across all industries, means that projects continue to be delayed or canceled and supply chains threatened. A major concern for employers that had to furlough workers is the uncertainty over whether those skills will be available when it comes to re-hiring. 

Pre-COVID, the industry was already in need of more labor due to skill shortages across a number of key areas. Back in early March, Simon Rubinsohn, chief economist with RICS, commented: “The shortage of labor, and particularly skilled labor, is having a significant impact on affordability as companies compete for qualified cost managers, project managers, and skilled trades. This trend is likely to continue to limit construction activity over the short and long terms.” 

A 2019 survey released by the Associated General Contractors of America, in partnership with Autodesk, found that 80% of construction companies could not find the workers they needed. It also revealed that, as a result of these shortages, 44% put higher prices into bids or contracts and found projects were taking longer than anticipated to complete.

Taking action

Before the pandemic hit, progress was being made in attempting to alleviate labor shortages. The same survey found that 50% of firms were engaged with career-building programs and 66% had increased base pay rates for hard-to-fill positions. 

However, the construction industry must also address its image problem. Research from Dodge Data & Analytics found that 40% of respondents said there is a misconception that construction is a low-paying job that cannot provide enough pay to support a family. Other myths about construction are that it is a dirty job (selected in the top three by 61%), that it requires brute strength, not training (55%), and that it is just a job and not a real career (52%). 

In what will be music to the ears of construction firms, the Dodge survey suggests that it is not a case of continuing to increase salaries to engage talent, but educating professionals outside of the industry that the rewards are lucrative.

Of course, a considerable part of this comes down to connecting with young people. Speaking to Equipment Today, Jason Daly, global director, marketing & support at John Deere Construction & Forestry, said: “We’ve reached out to kids as young as middle school to bring them into our [North Carolina] factory to show them there are paths that aren’t centered around traditional four-year colleges but still give them great opportunities.” 

Philip Kelliher, vice president, Americas, Distribution Services Division for Caterpillar, added to the conversation: “We have some of the most advanced technology anywhere...I think we have a challenge to better communicate with the youth of today the opportunities in working as a technician or engineer and in the various other elements of the business.”

When it comes to solving immediate skills shortages, construction firms are expanding their reach outside of the industry to recruit professionals who possess transferable skills. For example, approximately 200,000 men and women leave US military service and return to life as civilians each year, which presents a new and highly-skilled talent pool from which the industry can recruit. Additionally, the digitization of construction has the potential to transform perceptions completely and appeal to more tech-savvy professionals from a range of backgrounds and industries.

Changing the opinions of young people and existing professionals about a career in construction will not happen overnight and requires companies to invest in ongoing training and sharing the message that our industry provides a lifetime career path that is both rewarding and highly fulfilling. 

Want to find out more about a career in construction? Looking for talent to fill a role? 

PRS is a leading expert in professional built environment recruitment services. Having developed a strong track record for placing exceptional Field, Project Management, and Pre-Construction talent into businesses worldwide, we have established a new division to exclusively serve the US market. For more information about how we can help secure a role or find the right professional, contact Chris McCay on 281.779.4186 or email Chris.McCay@prsjobs.com