A Sustainable Workforce Starts With You

Construction Craftwork as a Career, part 4 of 4

History and Hope: Fifty Years Later C3 Gets It Right

Editor’s note:  In parts one through three of this series, Pat Kiley’s article Construction Craftwork as a Career has listed the state of the commercial construction craft workforce, given an account of the history of the industry over the past fifty years, and talked about the reasons for the rise and fall of union versus open shops.  He concludes with the view that the industry can regain esteem for crafts worker careers through a new approach which combines the best of the union and open shop systems.

There is one other factor that has brought us to the state of the industry, described in the first part of this series.  It is, to me, the most regrettable thing that has happened, especially as we look forward.  Raw labor costs have become a real element of the way this market now competes.  Leave aside the lack of benefits and training – many companies pay as little as possible because of the abundant supply of immigrant labor.  And, unscrupulous contractors are skirting the basic employment laws governing overtime and withholding taxes, even minimum wage.  What is even more concerning is that, in this ridiculously competitive fee environment, more owners and general contractors are using these lowball bidders, so they are thriving while many who play fair – who meet the minimum legal requirements – struggle.  Economists may call this phenomenon the law of supply and demand.  More accurately, it is an industry losing respect for its most essential component, the skilled craft worker.  The industry used to compete on means and methods, on time, on more innovative approaches to field and office operations.  It never used to compete on the backs of its field workers.  Quite the contrary, the industry appreciated and celebrated their skills.

The second question from part one of this series, the tougher one, is now on the table.  Where do we go from here?  How do we regain control of our most essential resource, the skilled craft worker?  How do we, as a commercial construction industry, create a sustainable workforce: one that allows us to reap the prosperity of Houston’s future growth, one that builds all the structures required by the 2040 scenarios developed by the Center for Houston’s Future?  How do we make commercial construction craft work an attractive career choice again for both American and legal immigrant workers?

It is evident that the “pure” union system is not the complete answer; politics and power are still too predominant, and so are underfunded pension plans.  But in saying that, the better elements of the union system – a standardized minimum, livable wage rate paid in compliance with employment laws; portable, multi-employer benefit plans; and formal training programs supported by an hourly contribution from all employers – should be incorporated, over time, into a new system.

It is also evident that the “pure” open shop system, at least in its current, deteriorated state, is not the total solution, either.  There is no standard, measureable training.  There are no multi-employer, portable benefit options.  There are limited consequences for worker abuse or paying illegally.  But again, the better elements of the open shop system – merit pay, freedom to assign craft work and to control crew mix, no third-party interference in the employer/employee relationship – should become part of a future system.

Fortunately, the new system has been conceived and birthed.  It is called the Construction Career Collaborative (C3).  It involves owners, general contractors and specialty contractors – the “at risk” parties at the base of the triangle – but it is also supported by suppliers, industry professionals, trade associations, academia and other industry participants.  It holds great promise even though it is embryonic and fragile.  Pilot projects at major institutions are underway using the C3 system.  These sophisticated owners have fully embraced the underlying concepts.  Early feedback is most encouraging.

The C3 system will be implemented in phases.  Early obligations require that all contractors and subcontractors pay workers according to the employment laws and also provide a specified and documented amount of safety training; simple, but a real step forward, even on these larger projects.  Additional requirements for craft training will be added as easily accessible and affordable resources are available.  Options are being researched now.  Ultimately, portable benefit options can be added.  When it all comes together, a career as a construction craft worker will once again be competitive and attractive!

After 50 years and two different, predominating systems that did not get it totally right, C3 is the answer.  With everyone’s support of this initiative, our industry will fully realize an exciting future.

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