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Cooperate Until You Compete, Then Compete Hard

Addressing the labor shortage requires cooperation across the industry at the same time we compete for quality workers

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Welcome to our special issue on the skilled labor shortage. In it, we report on the Metal Construction Industry Summit that we held in April, starting on page 14. After a brief recap of the summit, we dig into the issues, starting with our feature “Industry in Crisis” on page 16. That’s followed by two in-depth articles about “Finding Workers” on page 21 and managing “The New Workforce” on page 24.

You’ll find other articles about the labor shortage throughout the issue including a special Industry Perspective column from the Metal Construction Association’s executive director Karl Hielscher about the role the association can take in this issue facing the industry. I’ll also direct you to other recent issues where we have covered the labor shortage, including a fine column from Ironworkers International’s David Beard in the June issue.

Nobody should be surprised about the labor shortage. We’ve seen it coming for years, and now that the industry is running at full tilt, it’s become acute. But there are solutions that individual contractors can implement (many of which we discuss in our features), as well as things the industry as a whole needs to do.

I call this approach the Tour de France model. For any of you who follow professional cycling, you know the most important characteristic of a bike race is that drafting behind another cyclist saves approximately 40 percent of his energy compared to a cyclist not drafting. And, in fact, the rider at the front of the peloton or echelon who is setting the pace also gets a performance boost from drafting.

Because of that characteristic, teams that compete against each other cooperate to improve the performance of the group. I think we need to do the same in our industry. Competitors—whether contractors, manufacturers or suppliers—need to work together to attract more young people to our skilled trades, improve our abilities in managing immigrant labor and find production efficiencies that reduce our reliance on skilled labor.

Much of that is already happening, but not everyone is participating. If you’re not involved in helping the industry in these areas, then you’re getting the advantage of other people’s work. It’s simple to do, and the best way for contractors to get involved is to be active in associations such as the Metal Building Contractors & Erectors Association that are working to solve the labor shortage.

After you get yourself hooked up with the cooperation side of things, you need to take a cue from the Tour de France cyclists at the end of a stage when all signs of cooperation disappear and racers begin jostling for position in the final sprint. It’s a frightening, thrilling experience to watch those guys go 50 miles per hour in unbridled sprinting, shoulder to shoulder in a push for the finish line. That’s equal to the fierceness contractors need to bring to the competitive market for skilled labor. Shoulder to shoulder. Unbridled.

You have to be better at identifying sources of skilled labor than your competitors. You have to create a company that is exciting for workers and show them you value their efforts. You have to train them to improve themselves and improve your company. And you have to give them demanding, exciting work that will make them proud to be part of your team.

If you can’t do those things, if those things are not part of your company culture, you will find yourself jammed out of the race and watch other, competitive companies take your place in the lead.

We need to cooperate, but when it’s time to compete, we need to compete.