How Workforce Optics are Shaping the Labor Shortage
April 1, 2020
This article was originally published in Constructech magazine.
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For the last few years, the AEC industry has faced an uphill battle with the shrinking labor pool. From skilled trade workers to college educated construction management graduates, the demand for employees to fill new positions has grown and continues to grow past what schools are able to meet. According to AGC, 80% of contractors had difficulty finding craft workers in 2018, while the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that same year had 263,000 job openings. As the existing workforce continues to age and retire, this problem has the potential to spiral to disastrous proportions for the industry.
Technology is held as a critical key to unlocking workforce potential, and it certainly is. New tech allows each person to accomplish more work, multiplying a team’s effectiveness. While the construction industry is coming around to tech, up and coming generations of the workforce increasingly see construction as unappealing and technologically obstinate. The problem is no longer the industry’s refusal to digitize, but it’s struggles to overcome the stigma.
There Is No Number
The problem arises from perception. The average annual salary for an employee in the AEC industry is $38,890 according to U.S. News. However, a study conducted by Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University, found that 47% of people between the ages of 18 and 25 years old believe that number to be over $51,000 annually. Depending on the specific profession, that number isn’t so absurd—carpenters averaged $49,630, structural iron and steelworkers averaged $56,940, and construction managers averaged a whopping $101,000 in salary.
The complicating factor is the next statistic: 63% of respondents in that same study indicated that there was little or no chance that they would consider construction. What’s more shocking is that these respondents were then pressed on what salary amount it would take for them to consider construction. For 21%, that number is above $100,000—for 43%, there was no number.
Professor Cowen further pushed those 63% of respondents—if pay wasn’t the key issue preventing them from considering skilled work, what was?
- 48% wanted a less physically demanding job
- 32% believed that construction work is difficult
The perception of the work itself—the tools they’d use, the tasks they’d perform, the conditions they’d work in—was a more powerful barrier than pay. This is something that young adults have voiced and demonstrated over and over again: money beyond what they need to live relatively stable lives is less important than doing fulfilling, meaningful work.
Virtual Work in the Physical World
To some, construction is absolutely fulfilling, meaningful work. Few industries deliver products that literally tower over those who came together to create them, but it is filled with an incredible amount of tedious, repetitive, and unfulfilling tasks. Reading through a spec book might be interesting for the first few pages to someone fresh out of college or trade school, but it quickly loses its luster by page 200. The briefest amount of digging or interest in construction uncovers these dull processes, and scares away the vast majority of young people deciding on a career path. These young adults are not blind—there is no amount of marketing that can provide the illusion of tools and technologies that are not there. To fix the perception, we need to fix the problem.
This is the true, long-term benefit of reshaping the industry to be more receptive of emerging technologies. New and innovative automation tools are taking the tedium and monotony out of construction while reducing financial risk, both of which reduce stress and increase job satisfaction. But to realize the full benefits of a tech-forward culture, it needs to be front and center so potential works can see it. Not hidden away, or used begrudgingly, or purchased and not nurtured.
Enabling your experienced employees to utilize technology fully and streamline their processes with these tools provides a solid learning base for any new hires that enter the industry, and creates a culture where outdated practices are not lauded as tradition. With this technical and cultural infrastructure in place, young people will perceive the industry in a new light, as one that embraces the technology they’ve had at their fingertips since birth, and one that they could see themselves pursuing a career in. Instead of driving a wedge between the virtual this new workforce grew up in and the physical world of construction, merging these two together can not only improve the efficiency of construction, but can show them the fulfillment that comes with creating in the physical world.