The shortage of skilled workers in construction crafts has been an ongoing challenge since the economic recovery began—and it appears the issue will be with us for some time.
In a recent survey by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), 80 percent of construction firms reported they were having a hard time filling hourly craft positions. In addition, the survey results suggest there’s no relief in store soon. Almost the same number of contractors—81 percent—predicted it will continue to be hard—or get even harder—to find workers during the coming year.
In response to the ongoing shortage of skilled labor, the AGC and various other trade organizations are urging federal officials to increase support for construction workforce development and boost funding for career and technical education. While these policies are important in the long term, many individual contractors are searching for more immediate strategies to deal with their needs.
Here are a few strategies some contractors have found useful in helping them attract and retain high-quality employees:
• Begin with the basics—competitive pay and benefits. Deciding how much base salary to offer is a judgment call, but keep in mind that your compensation package needs to be competitive—not just with other contractors in the area, but also with other industries that employ workers with similar skills.
• Reward top performers. In the smallest firms, a bonus program may be completely discretionary and informal, but once your company grows beyond a few employees, your incentive program should be more structured, transparent, and demonstrably objective. Before you unveil the program to employees, however, run some financial models to understand how your incentive program will operate under various economic scenarios. This will require support from your accountant, but it is worthwhile.
• Let people know they’re valued. Some contractors have begun supplying every employee with a one-page summary listing the dollar value of all benefits received, including wages, Social Security and Medicare contributions, other health and retirement benefits, meals, mileage, and other reimbursements.
• Cultivate new sources. Most contractors are familiar with local sources of interim workers to get them through a short-term labor shortage. While trade association bulletin boards generally focus on project managers and supervisory-level personnel, some also list crafts and trades workers. Temporary agencies that specialize in construction trades are another option, although there can be significant costs associated with this approach. Career fairs and high school-level construction skills academies can also be good recruitment venues.
• Be flexible and ready to adapt. Cross-training or multi-skill training can give you more flexibility to deal with current and future staffing problems. In addition, these practices also can help attract and retain workers who are looking for future growth and career opportunities. A growing number of contractors are turning to offsite construction processes and prefabrication of components to help them deal with labor issues.
• Make safety a priority. In a recent survey, 26 percent of contractors said they were highly concerned about the safety risks associated with having too few skilled workers on site. A strong safety program not only helps you avoid fines, liability, and downtime, it also lets employees know you value their welfare.
• Provide good working conditions. In addition to a safe workspace, quality-oriented workers are also attracted by worksites that are well-organized with properly functioning equipment and adequate rest periods. Of course, all supervisors and managers should be required to treat employees fairly and respectfully as well.
• Apply technology. In the AGC survey, 25 percent of respondents said they were increasing their use of labor-saving equipment to cope with the shortage. A similar number reported they were using virtual construction methods such as building information modeling (BIM) to help boost efficiency. In addition to reducing the demand for onsite labor, the increased use of technology can also help make a construction career more appealing to younger, tech-savvy workers.