A Sustainable Workforce Starts With You

Houston: The Key to Tomorrow is Skilled Workforce Development

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

Any person related to the construction industry not keenly aware of the skilled craftworker shortage is simply not paying attention or is in denial.  All reliable sources validate the shortage.  In a recent National AGC survey, over 70 percent of the contractors responding indicated they are experiencing a shortage of these highly trained and highly critical workers.  These contractors represent both general and specialty contractors and serve all major nonresidential market sectors: Commercial, Industrial, Municipal/Utility, and Highway/Heavy.  They also represent a broad cross section of geography: those areas where unions remain strong with traditional apprenticeship programs, and those areas where open-shop labor policies prevail and formal training programs are more aimed at industrial crafts or conducted in-house.  The shortage is real now and is projected to grow.

There are already innovative responses – prefab, for example, which allows greater productivity per traditional craftsman in an off-site, controlled environment.  And, more recently, new companies, funded by experienced technology venture capital funds, have charged into the marketplace.  These new arrivals hope to disrupt the long-entrenched value chains using technology, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics.  They will build most of the structure off-site in a manufacturing mode, then assemble and install on-site.  They purport to offer both schedule and cost advantages.  Katerra and Full-Stack Modular are examples; their websites deserve a look.  Certainly, 3D printing is also gaining momentum and the capacity to produce larger structures.

However, while these options hold promise and will help ameliorate the shortage so buildings can be built with competitive schedules and budgets, none will replace the continuous need for senior leaders to ensure that there is a serious skilled workforce development initiative in their companies, in their associations, and in their communities.  As a matter of fact, these programs need to be strengthened to recognize the complexity of the tools of tomorrow and their increased capacity for both productivity and data recording.  Skilled workers will always be needed to program the robots, make the inevitable adjustments, and finish these jobs – no matter where components are built.

The Houston construction community recognizes this need and is responding at every level.  The Construction Career Collaborative (C3) is a membership organization supported by all major construction associations and many general and specialty contractors as well as owners, both institutional and private.  To be a member, a contractor agrees to play by the law and have verifiable, approved, specific safety and craft training for his workers.  Owners then specify that this project is “a C3 Job.”  Compliance can be verified.  The group works with the Greater Houston Partnership and Upskill Houston, an initiative to partner community colleges with industries to create the post-secondary, technical training needed for Houston’s future workforce.  The building trades unions are collaborating too.  And there are also some exceptional in-house workforce development programs that will be reviewed in coming articles.  These integrated initiatives are beginning to gain real traction and can serve as models for restoring construction craftwork to a desirable blue-collar career option.