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May 8, 2018

Local Experts Weigh in on Skilled Labor Shortage

Recently, Landworks Studio asked three industry leaders to share their thoughts on the skilled labor shortage and how organizations are working to bridge the gap. We know this issue is impacting our clients and wanted to learn more about how companies are overcoming the shortage. 

In fact, a survey from Autodesk and the Associated General Contractors of America recently found 70 percent of construction firms are having a hard time filling hourly craft positions that represent the bulk of the construction workforce. 

Below, you’ll find insight from Barry Sutherland, director of McCarthy Building Companies, Inc.; Randy Gorton, public works services group leader of BHC Rhodes; and Jack Harwell, advisor at the Kansas SBDC at Johnson County Community College.

How are projects in your community being impacted by the labor shortage?
Barry: The labor shortage impacts our projects across the board. When you have less manpower, of course it means that your schedule is impacted. When the schedule is impacted and labor is tight, that means more costs. The labor shortage also affects the project’s quality, as less trained labor is staffed on a project.

Jack: The labor shortage is limiting some businesses' ability to grow. Some business owners are limiting their marketing and customer acquisition activities to slow down demand. 

Randy: There are some limitations in terms of the number of contractors that bid on public projects, and we are now dealing with situations in which certain projects are delayed as contractors have reached the limit of their capacity and have to get current work done before taking on new projects. There have not been significant increases in prices yet.

In which job sectors have you seen the largest deficits?
Barry: The largest trades we are seeing issues with are the laborers and masons. The laborers are struggling because it’s the most physically demanding trade. The masons are struggling, because it’s the most labor intensive.

Jack: We’ve seen the largest deficits in trades (electrical, contracting, etc.) and manufacturing.

Randy: Entry-level design and surveying professionals, skilled construction trades, and certain types of manual labor have received the most attention from us. 

Which factors do you think have contributed to it?
Barry: It all started with the recession. Once construction slowed, the tradespeople were laid off. There was not much hope of a recovery in sight, so the tradespeople opted to explore other industries, like manufacturing and never returned. In addition, as the baby boomers are retiring, there were not enough interested young people to fill the gaps. 

Jack: There is a cultural emphasis on college education and white collar jobs and a de-emphasis on trade skill programs in high school and community colleges.

Randy: Software, computer and web-related services are now competing for technically-minded people. That, combined with recession in 2008-2010, has directed potential design and survey professionals to other careers. More choices for non-construction jobs and less interest in working outside, combined with other market forces, seem to move people in other employment directions.

How do you think it could be improved?
Barry: It all starts with parenting. Instead of telling our children they have to get a four-year degree to be successful, we need to start telling them the construction industry – and other labor-intensive industries – are great options, as well. We also have to do a better job of educating youth at an earlier point about the benefits of a job in the trades.

Jack: There needs to be more information about skilled job pay and benefits. Increased educational opportunities for trades in high school and community colleges would also make a difference.

Randy: We have been increasing support and participation in STEM outreach efforts throughout K-12 levels to generate awareness and interest in these areas for future careers. Historically, immigrants have also had a role in filling some of these employment needs. This may need to be considered if the current trend continues.

Which steps is your organization taking to combat it?
Barry: As not only a construction manager, but a builder that employs our own tradespeople, we’re taking this issue very seriously. One concept is in helping to develop a high school pre-apprenticeship program to create a pipeline for high school students to enter postsecondary apprenticeship training in various trades. We’re also going into elementary schools and educating those children about what a construction career looks like. And then, we’re also participating in events like the National Institute of Construction Excellence’s (NICE) iBuild, where middle school and high school students have a chance to meet with construction industry professionals to learn about what they do on a daily basis.

Jack: As a community college, we don’t have the issue. We are, however, investing in expanding our trade education infrastructure with a new building and expanded programs. Some of our small business clients have developed or are considering developing apprenticeship programs.

Randy: As mentioned above, we have been supporting STEM outreach with kids through monetary support and encouraging our employees to devote time to publicizing STEM careers. They are engaging directly with students to educate them on what we do and why they might enjoy it.