Editor’s Comments: The Pieces Are All in Place

Jan. 11, 2019

This can be the year we put it all together. Consider that we’re in the midst of evolving construction technology. It coincides with a skilled labor shortage. Add to that the anemic percentage of women in the construction workforce. I’m also hearing cries for more migrant labor.

At the time of this writing, the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) reports that 5,000 construction jobs were added in November 2018, bringing the total number for the year up to 282,000. This happened as hourly pay went up by 3.7% for the year. That’s good news for job seekers, right?

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The problem is that a recent AGC survey showed that about 80% of construction firms were having trouble hiring skilled workers and anticipated that it would remain difficult or get even harder. The AGC’s chief economist, Ken Simonson says, “Demand for construction remains strong and pay is rising faster than in the overall economy. But contractors are having increasing difficulty finding qualified workers as industry unemployment slides to historic lows.” The Association continues lobbying efforts to increase funding for career training and technical education programs, but change is coming slowly.

In the meantime, women make up less than 3% of the construction workforce at all levels, including management. New efforts in lobbying and recruiting programs are targeting women. This might be due to the realization that, according to data from the US Department of Labor, simply doubling the number of women currently working in construction could virtually wipe out the skilled labor shortage.

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Recruiting young people, women, and veterans into the construction industry is an easier sell than the need for migrant labor. Immigration reform has been a controversial political debate, but being able to access millions of undocumented immigrants with some sort of visa program could ease the strain of worker shortages. The AGC suggests, “True reform must include a mechanism for construction industry employers to hire the temporary foreign-born workers they need when American workers are unavailable and economic demand merits.”

The year 2019 gets underway with technology that will make it easier for all of these prospective workforce additions to enter the construction workforce, a least when it comes to operating heavy equipment. Advancements in machine control, grade control, fleet management software, and training simulators have dramatically shortened the time it takes to get new operators performing like seasoned veterans.

Add to that the use of augmented or mixed reality visually assisting and guiding operators, and you get increases in efficiency and productivity. Other technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), data analytics, drones, and robots can contribute to a well-managed job site that might be filled with inexperienced workers.

The technology is there to be taken advantage of but we have to deviate from “business as usual.” We need more funding for technical education and outreach programs. Before that can happen there has to be a shift in the perception of the construction industry as a dusty, noisy, steel-toed, back-breaking job to that of a high-tech, software infused, results driven, adventurous career. You should consider hiring more women. Consider putting more migrant labor on the job. We’ve sat and watched as the experienced and skilled workers grew older and eventually retired and created this labor shortage. It’s time to get up now and take it upon ourselves to force some change and put the pieces together.