March 29, 2007

It’s a global contest for skilled workers

  • Industry leaders must convince more young workers and immigrants about the benefits of a construction career.
    ABC of Western Washington

    Although the industry and individual companies are using a myriad of ways to recruit workers, the labor shortage remains one of today’s hottest issues and is predicted to become much worse over the next decade. The number of construction jobs nationally is expected to grow by more than 1 million between 2002 and 2012, surpassing a total of 7.7 million.

    There are two key elements to the labor shortage: demographics and the nature of the industry. The statistics are alarming. There are simply far fewer potential workers coming of working age than there were in previous generations. The number of workers approaching retirement age versus the number of workers coming into the workplace dictates a severe shortage for now and the foreseeable future. From 1994 to 2004, the proportion of the native-born labor force ages 23-44 fell from 63.3 percent to 52.9 percent. And, we aren’t the only industry vying for those young workers.

    The college myth

    In today’s society there is a strong belief that every young person must go to college in order to have a successful career. Although we know that is not true it is still the cultural belief. The proportion of native-born workers age 25 and older with a high-school diploma or less fell from 52.5 percent in 1994 to 45 percent in 2004. Since construction is often mistakenly viewed as a career for those with less education, these statistics imply an even more difficult time in recruiting from our traditional labor pool.

    That belief is also fed by a negative perception of the construction industry by today’s youth and their parents. The perception of our work is that it is performed by trades people working outdoors and that it is cold, wet, dirty and dangerous. However, that is not the case. There certainly is a shortage of craft workers but the shortage is just as dire for project engineers and managers, estimators, safety officers and other non-field personnel. Graduates from construction management programs are fielding multiple offers from contractors and can easily switch jobs if they don’t like their first choice.

    Still we have much more to do before the construction industry is viewed with the same cachet as some of the “more desirable” professions.

    The public’s perception

    On a large scale, the industry needs to intensify its efforts to improve its image with today’s youth, their parents and school career counselors. Construction is a vibrant industry with career paths that have led many to successful company ownership. There is even some thought that reality shows such as “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” may be improving the public’s perception of construction.

    For the industry’s part, we need to attend high-school career days and serve on school advisory boards. We must champion increased vocational funding in high schools and encourage students to look at the various careers available. At the college level, we have to appeal to a younger group and show them more specific information about what type of companies we are.

    Grant Larsen, president of Express Construction, invested in an MTV-style video that depicts a typical day in the life of the company. It appeals to students and provides a flavor of the company culture.

    Larger companies frequently tout opportunities for travel and growth within.

    The foreign connection

    While the political debate about immigration reform is waged, the industry has been turning to foreign-born workers to address some of the domestic scarcity. While Latino workers are the most prevalent, there are also significant numbers from Asia and Eastern Europe — all bringing their own languages, customs and cultures with them. As an industry we are getting better about training and safety for non-English-speaking crews.

    On average, foreign-born workers tend to be younger and have less formal education. In 2004, immigrants made up more than a quarter of 25-to-34-year-old workers with a high-school diploma or less, and more than half of 25-to-34-year-olds without a high school diploma.

    Flexibility required

    Because generations X and Y have different work habits and expectations, employers are discovering ways to be more flexible to meet those demands. In our offices we have instituted flex time with our employees so that they can meet family obligations and do volunteer work, which is important to them.

    Rod Kirkwood, president of Merit Mechanical, says that appealing to a multi-generational and multi-cultural workforce requires a great deal of flexibility. For example, older workers focus best on one task at a time while younger generations are multitaskers. Merit also provides flexible work hours, job sharing and other benefits to attract and retain its skilled workers.

    A hand from the armed forces

    One of the logical places to find workers is the military.

    Saybr Contractors President Karen Say said, “The military separatees are well-suited for the construction industry.”

    Say helped form an ABC taskforce to work with the military Transitional Assistance Programs recruiting people separating from the military.

    “Military folks have some transferable skills (health and safety training among others), are used to the discipline of working under challenging conditions with a diverse group of people, and enjoy the benefits of advancement based on merit,” Say said.

    Another strategy is to increase training.

    Although it is difficult to give workers time off to attend classes, it ultimately pays off because increased skills make workers safer and more efficient. Younger workers feel compelled to keep their skills current and view continuing education as a benefit. This is also a step contractors can take to ensure their existing employees stay with them.

    In addition to competitive pay, first-rate benefits and a superior working environment, workers want to feel valued and that they are company assets. Open-shop employers have an advantage here because they have a more direct relationship with their employees and can negotiate salaries, benefits and working conditions to meet employees’ needs.

    The worker shortage won’t be solved any time soon. There are no easy or quick fixes. Regardless of the politicization of immigration, it is clear we must embrace foreign-born workers if the industry is to meet the demands of an expanding economy. The construction industry must continue what it is already doing, just do more of it, and at the same time seek more creative and aggressive measures to convince more young workers and immigrants that their futures are in construction.

    Kathleen Garrity has served as president of Associated Builders and Contractors of Western Washington since the chapter was founded in 1983. She sits on the state Prevailing Wage Advisory Committee and served on the ad hoc committee that rewrote the state’s apprenticeship laws and rules. She also is on the advisory committee of the Contractor Development & Competitiveness Center/Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle.

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