A Sustainable Workforce Starts With You

Who Will Build Tomorrow?

The following article originally appeared in the April newsletter to clients of FMI Corporation.  Reprinted with permission.

This question looms larger and more relative each day.  For the past several years, contractors in the Greater Houston area have been straining its existing workforce to put $25-$26 billion of construction in place, annually.  This is the aggregate amount of work each year in the residential, nonresidential building and non-residential structures markets.  Builders in each of these markets report labor shortages with almost all skilled crafts; retirements continue to outpace recruits.  Travelers are dwindling as work returns to normal levels, everywhere.  Overtime is pervasive; 50-hour weeks have become standard with several crafts.  This area could easily absorb 5,000 additional craftworkers right now.

So with a real worker shortage today and with researched projections that say the amount of annual construction put in place will almost double by 2040, a critical strategic question becomes who will build tomorrow?  (The Perryman Group has projected that Houston GDP will be $998.9 billion in 2040.  Construction-put-in-place is historically and conservatively 5% of GDP.)

A threshold priority is access to a legal immigrant work force.  It is a matter of math; there are not enough citizens in this area to fill construction jobs, even if the industry improves its recruiting rate.  Many other industries face the same facts.  This industry has always relied on immigrants – they do great work; they founded great companies.  Locally Tellepsen, Bellows, MAREK, and Chamberlin all have immigrant roots.  Nationally McCarthy, Gilbane, Sundt, and many others have immigrant DNA – as do most of us.  Americans for Immigration Reform and the Rational Middle initiatives are two groups into which industry leaders have invested heavily.

The Construction Career Collaborative (C3) is trying to restore construction craftwork to a financially viable and honorable blue-collar career choice.  It’s an alliance of owners, general contractors and specialty contractors.  The owners specify this will be a “C3 Project” meaning that accredited contractors agree to follow the guidelines for legal pay as to overtime and taxes, minimum safety training, and a commitment to craft training.  A wide range of training partners have been enrolled.  They include the junior college system; established training programs through AGC, ABC, and AFL-CIO; and more recently, some enlightened industry non-profits.  SER Jobs for Progress is one.  They have welding and several core construction classes.  In addition to building the workers, this group takes low income participants with a history of challenges and helps rebuild their lives.  Contractors who employ their graduates become partners in helping SER and the worker with this noble journey.

Finally, a website called ConstructionCitizen.com is a central vehicle for education and communication.  There are articles on current issues and trends.  It projects a contemporary “techy” industry image, almost essential to appeal to the emerging workforce and increasingly valid as jobsite technology explodes.  On Steel Toe Pro, craft job descriptions are posted, and so are jobs.

More initiatives and wider industry support are needed.  Solving the challenge of “who will build tomorrow” is in everyone’s best interest.