In Demand

 BEST PRACTICES 01There’s no time to lose in using tactics to attract and retain workers.   

By Duane Wingate 

Although 36 states added construction jobs between August 2015 and August 2016, construction employment increased in only 24 states between this July and August, according to the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), primarily because firms that wanted to increase their headcount could not find qualified workers to hire. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the industry will grow 28.8 percent by 2022, meanwhile tightness in the labor supply will only continue to increase in the years ahead.

What’s driving the growth in today’s construction industry? During the Great Recession, no industry was hit harder than construction. As a result, capital improvement projects were shelved, and new construction was halted, while existing structures continued to age and depreciate. Many of these projects were urgently needed even before the recession, and now the backlog is increasingly critical.

In addition, residential construction is expected to grow over the next decade to meet the needs of a growing population as the oldest children of the baby boomers reach their peak house-buying years. Demand by an expanding older population for senior housing and healthcare residences will lead to further growth in the industry, and all types of medical treatment facilities geared to the growing elderly population are needed. 

As the industry continues to expand, the widespread lack of skilled labor is also increasing, due to changing trends that have combined to cripple what was once a robust education pipeline for new construction workers: the dismantling of public vocational and technical education programs; declining participation in union apprenticeship training; and increased focus on college preparatory programs at the high school level. These practices prevail even though, in today’s market, plumbers, electricians and carpenters who enter trade schools and graduate can often be making six figures well ahead of their peers – without a substantial college loan burden.

Jobs in the highest demand include:

Estimators – Nothing is built without an estimate, so every job demands estimators. There’s a myth that construction jobs always involve manual labor. Cost estimators do occasionally don a hard hat and get their hands dirty on a construction site, but they also spend considerable time crunching numbers in an office. Cost estimators are involved in both the high-level and minuscule decisions of budgeting, and so they must be familiar with a site’s resources but also be adept with computers and various estimating softwares. Some cost estimators are charged with budgeting the cost of a project from start to finish, while others are hired to budget specifics, like the electrical component. A bachelor’s degree in an industry-related field is the most common starting point, but voluntarily pursuing certification can provide candidates with an edge, too.  As they become skilled in their craft, estimators can develop into pre-construction managers, working on projects from a conceptual beginning as opposed to merely working from an established set of drawings.

Construction Managers – Also known as superintendents, construction managers responsible for planning and budgeting a construction project have two profiles: the skilled laborer who comes up through the field and becomes a superintendent, and more recently, the college graduate with a degree in construction or building science or a related field, who prefers the fast action of the field as opposed to working in an office. An associate’s degree, when combined with relevant experience, also serves as an appropriate entry. Other crucial traits for a construction manager include analytical skills for troubleshooting project snags, some managerial experience in finding and supervising staff, and strong communication skills for writing proposals and budget plans. 

Construction Engineering Managers – Construction engineering managers are key players in the successful completion of construction projects. Over the course of their careers, they are likely to work on and oversee a broad range of projects, including design of drainage and sewage systems, building construction or even larger infrastructure projects like developing highways or railroads. The work they do involves the application of technical and scientific knowledge accrued through both undergraduate and graduate-level studies to the processes involved with infrastructure construction projects. Ideally, CEMs have experience in construction management techniques as well as their wider application to the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry.

The Trades – Because of today’s scarcity of training programs in the building trades, skilled craftsmen in all areas are in high demand:  plumbers, masons, glaziers, electricians, painters and carpenters. The BLS predicts, for example, that employment for brick masons and block masons could balloon 40 percent before 2020. It’s possible to learn some of the basics for these roles on the job, but studying at a technical college or entering an apprenticeship are also common training pathways. Many of these jobs require certification and some, such as electricians, require passing a licensing exam before they are allowed to practice independently.

In order to stand out from competitors and hire the people they need, construction companies must take an introspective look at their recruiting and retention practices. To foster a better environment for workers they should:

Do a culture check – Traditionally, the industry is very controlling with low flexibility. Methods to minimize micromanagement and offer more independence include listening to employees’ goals and needs and being open-minded to other ways of completing a task. Creating this sense of autonomy in a job is especially crucial for reaching millennial workers, who have proven to be the most difficult group to attract. 

Promote diversity – Raising the representation of women and minorities would have the effect of attracting workers to construction at a time when the industry desperately needs more people. Some forward-thinking companies are forming diversity steering committees, performing culture audits, and raising awareness of the issue throughout all levels of the organization. There is little doubt that diversity increases innovation, as well as the ability to attract and retain quality people. 

Encourage excellence – It is vital that companies provide employees with opportunities to hone their craft and continue learning. One of the most effective ways to accomplish this goal comes with leadership programs. Leadership is more than being a good project manager. It requires cross-training people and showing them parts of the business they might not otherwise see, so that over time, the company will have a pool of leaders to pull from. When companies promote leadership tracks or programs, employees strive to be chosen for those programs, creating a sense of pride that fosters retention.

Instill a sense of purpose – One way to improve retention and keep employees happy with their jobs is to clearly define a purpose and continually reinforce that purpose. Clearly demonstrating a project’s goal by holding a meeting for employees with the future tenants of a hospital or teachers of a school, for example, allows people to better understand why they are working toward this goal. This is especially important when it comes to attracting young people to a company.

Put technology and social media to work – Millennials are interested in technology, so let that be an enticing carrot. Change the way the industry is represented when approaching a younger audience.  Some will be attracted to eco-friendly green building. Others will want to know about the use of mobile communications, computers, cameras or lasers. Place specific content to attract them to the company and have a presence on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and other sites. Encourage employees to share with their friends and become company ambassadors. 

Enhance quality of life – This goal can be the most difficult to achieve, but it can also have the biggest impact on employee retention. Health and wellness programs, which are a growing trend across all industries, are one of the key ways for companies to help improve the lives of employees. Encouraging employees to speak up when they have family obligations or are struggling to deal with busy travel schedules creates a sense of trust and respect between the employer and employee and restores humanity to the industry. 

BLS statistics indicate steady growth in the construction industry over the next decade. This equates to 1.6 million new jobs and doesn’t factor in additional openings left by retiring baby boomers. Competition for available labor will become increasingly fierce, so there’s no time to waste in implementing tactics that will attract and retain the workers companies need to thrive – and survive – in this era of opportunity for the industry. 

Duane Wingate is a construction specialist and team leader for the construction practice of Westport One, a St. Louis-based affiliate of MRINetwork, one of the largest executive search and recruitment organizations in the world. He can be reached at [email protected] 


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