Optimism abounds that the local and national economies are improving. Signs of that recovery are seen in many parts of the Greater Houston area. So while the future demand for construction seems to be on an upswing, finding new and replacement workers to perform the work may prove to be a difficult task.
Our current reality is that our craft workforce is rapidly graying. The average entry age of a new construction industry worker is 29, while the average age of a current worker is 47. It is estimated that up to 20% of our industry’s current workforce will retire within the next three years.
More recently, improper labor practices involving misclassifying employees as “subcontractors” has been the cause of significant deterioration in the construction industry’s image in addition to leaving no employer to invest in craft worker’s future.
Our industry has historically survived the ups and downs of the economy and been able to attract workers back into our workforce. However, according to a Construction Industry Institute study, “The industry’s ability to retain workers during the recessions and its ability to rehire them afterwards has declined.” Similarly, FMI reports that “People in the construction industry are either unaware of the situation or bury their heads in the sand to not deal with it.”
How did we get here? In the 70s and 80s craft workers came to our project with knowledge and skills. With that knowledge and skill came quality and productivity. The reward for quality and productivity was a good wage and benefits to support a family in an industry that valued the craftsperson, trained them and kept them employed with the contractor that happened to have the work.
In addition to a steady decline in quality and productivity in the last thirty years, there has been a gradual erosion of wages in many crafts. Today our project engineers and project managers enter the market out of college at a higher salary than the most skilled and experienced craft journeyman. In the 70s and 80s that same project engineer or project manager started at 1/3 to 1/2 the rate of a skilled and experienced journeyman. Nonetheless, our labor unit costs have increased in the same time period because of our loss of productivity and a built-in expense for lack of quality.
What can be done? Our industry must come together now to change the future workforce for our industry.
In order to attract workers, the commercial construction industry must be able to compete aggressively with other industries for the services qualified applicants. Our industry must commit itself to addressing issues dealing with financial security, health and well-being, training and education if we intend to attract and retain our share of these qualified workers. The demand by all industries to find workers for those jobs is our competition, not each other.
Now is the time to make our initial investment in changing the future craft worker. This first investment should be in knowledge training of all new craft workers entering our industry so we link our industry with academia. Today, 75% of high school graduates are seeking jobs that do not require a college degree. We need to lay the path for those graduates to find our industry coming out of or recently out of high school to acquire the knowledge that will prepare them to acquire the skills to advance quality and production.