Help Wanted: Dealing with the Construction Labor Shortage

On Nov. 2, President Biden hosted the White House Infrastructure Talent Pipeline Challenge event, and he used the opportunity to applaud industry efforts to develop an equitable workforce. Those efforts are in line with recommendations from National Skill Coalition’s (NSC’s) Infrastructure Industry Recovery Panel, he highlighted the importance of critical industry partnerships and marked the culmination of his administration’s call for a more inclusive infrastructure workforce. This nationwide call to action to make tangible commitments that support equitable workforce development includes construction (and its supply chain) as one of its sectors. NSC has recruited 150 organizations to the Talent Pipeline Challenge.

How contractors and the industry are responding to the manpower issue

By Mark Robins

President Biden gives remarks at the Talent Pipeline Challenge event. (Photo courtesy of National Skills Coalition)

The construction industry needed to attract nearly 650,000 additional workers on top of the normal pace of hiring in 2022 to meet the demand for labor, according to the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC). “ABC is working to address the U.S. construction industry’s overall skilled labor shortage because all the trades need more quality talent,” says Greg Sizemore, ABC’s vice president of health, safety, environment and workforce development. “The industry desperately needs qualified, skilled craft professionals to build America, but government-imposed mandates and needless regulations, like those in the Inflation Reduction Act, make it harder to fill these jobs.”

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Industry trade events, job fairs and repetitive interaction with hands-on career exploration activities create interest and excitement that translates into a higher number of people coming into the construction industry. (Photos courtesy of Associated Builders and Contractors)

Metal Construction News has recognized and acted on this industry manpower need. On April 12, 2018, contractors, builders, manufacturers and suppliers descended on Chicago for our Metal Construction Summit. The topic was “Attract and Retain: Developing a Workforce for the New Metal Construction Industry.” Even before this and after, MCN has examined the different aspects of the construction labor shortage. What follows is how contractors and the industry are handling it.

Contractors Respond

Hyattsville, Md.-based Wagner Roofing Co. has recognized this manpower problem as a major issue—witnessing a real shortage of construction workers as a whole—particularly skilled or experienced workers. It has found success via recruiting through word of mouth and recommendations from existing employees. “We offer incentives for our employees to refer skilled workers who have the potential to join our team and make a career with us,” says Dean Jagusch, Wagner Roofing’s owner/president. “We offer on-going training so our employees are able to hone their skills and advance to roles of greater responsibility. We approach projects differently. We identify steps in our process where lesser skilled crews might be able to perform the work, such as demolition and preparation, ahead of bringing in more highly skilled workers to perform the critical work.”

Jared Bradford, owner of PanelClad, a design-build general contractor in Visalia, Calif., believes that, “Labor scarcity is a difficult issue to address, especially with limited imagination. We are wired to look outward for a solution, rather than inward for the root cause. Has the traditional PEMB lost its luster of efficiency? Are manufacturers sacrificing value for their end user, just to be more competitive with one another? Have you ever considered what a 20% reduction in the amount of labor required to install manufactured products would equate to industry wide? Have energy codes helped to fuel the labor shortage issue?”

The construction industry needed to attract nearly 650,000 additional workers on top of the normal pace of hiring in 2022 to meet the demand for labor, according to the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC). (Photo courtesy of Wagner Roofing)

Education is one way to attract and retain workers. (Photo courtesy of National Center for Construction Education and Research, and the Builders Association of North Central Florida)

Bradford believes the best individual approach to labor shortage is by operational efficiency at all levels of an organization. “What if we tighten the screws on our daily production goals and get another 10% production from our field crews, reduce our amount of downtime by writing quality control processes into how we receive and inventory our materials on-site? Have tighter control on procurements to arrive just in time and prevent double handling on-site?”

Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Veneklasen Construction is working to be proactive and think strategically about how to do more with less due to the labor shortages in the market. “In addition to leveraging technology to gain efficiencies, we have teamed up with a few smaller steel erection companies to supplement our efforts,” says Veneklasen Construction CEO Chris Veneklasen. “Not only does this help to support our growth, but it also provides opportunities for small businesses. We continue to actively recruit qualified steel candidates but developing strategic alliances has been a great way of combating the labor shortage challenges.”

Bill Stillwell, managing member of Hippo Roofing, Melbourne, Fla., believes the severity of labor shortage issues is both regional as well as a reflection on the hiring practices and reputation of the hiring company. “Also, acting quickly to capture good candidates, being professional and selling the candidate on your company being the right place to work are all critical successful hiring factors. On the other hand, hiring field workers (metal roofers) can be done by the crew, but must be done cautiously. If you do not want problems, roofers must be background checked, as roofers can be roamers leaving their poor workmanship and habits behind. Work pictures do not cut it. You must test their skills and background check. The other approach is to hire and train candidates; that of course is a slower and more risky approach. It takes a lot of special attention, but it is possible to find good people if one screens for them properly and then supervises carefully. It is easy to hire a person to fill a slot; it is difficult to hire a good person that can fill a slot properly on a long-term, successful basis.”

Sometimes the response is monetary and flexibility. “We have had to adjust the pay scales for employees we already have, which is a slightly higher scale than some of our competitors,” says Rod O’Bannon, branch manager of Western Specialty Contractors-sheet metal division, Kansas City, Mo. “We offered more flexibility with employees who needed time off to take care of their kids due to schools not being able to open. Recruiting prior to the start of big jobs has probably been the most beneficial to us. Being a union shop and leaning on the Local to help with getting apprentices and/or pre-apprentices has been key to sustaining the small shortages.”

People need to become aware of the benefits of working in metal construction and know they can make a great career in this industry. (Photo courtesy of PanelClad)

The Industry Responds

Renee Ramey, executive director of the Metal Roofing Alliance (MRA), believes the metal roofing industry offers a lot of advantages and opportunities for those looking to get into a business that is ripe for growth, and it works hard to communicate that fact via its membership and outreach efforts. “In general, metal roofing jobs are more profitable and satisfying. For businesses that use quality material and focus on proper training, call-backs for metal roofing also tend to be less, which is a major benefit. Partner associations such as the Metal Construction Association (MCA) and National Roofing Contractors Association (NRCA), together with MRA, are working to develop better installation training programs and materials in support of metal roofing. We also help highlight and promote the opportunities available in the residential metal roofing industry. Making installation easier and faster will help with easing labor constraints. Going forward, use of materials such as self-adhesive underlayments, easy-to-use tools, and improved estimating systems will continue to streamline metal roofing installation.”

ABC’s approach to addressing the industry’s shortage is strategic and includes its 68 chapters and more than 22,000 member companies. ABC leverages a robust framework that focuses on targeted workforce entry points to fill the talent pipeline. These entry points include K-12 schools, community colleges, four-year universities and second career programs, as well as outreach to veterans and active military, reentering citizens, the underemployed and the non-degreed population.

“While creating awareness of the opportunities in construction is important, engagement is the most critical strategy to attract the next generation of craft professionals,” Sizemore says. “A single career fair doesn’t move the needle; however, repetitive interaction with hands-on career exploration activities creates interest and excitement that translates into a higher number of people coming into the construction industry.”

Chris Wilson, senior manager of projects at National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER), explains that industry groups and associations are helping with the metal construction industry’s labor shortage problem by positioning construction as a career, not just a job. “Through training, industry associations should make new entrants to the industry feel like they can become an expert in the field. Associations can show that there is a career path with a variety of jobs and that those coming into the metal construction industry have a lot of room for professional growth, including into management positions. Additionally, it is imperative that industry groups show that the work is safe and that the career offers a good work-life balance.”

Tim Taylor, director of research at NCCER, says, “Industry associations can help regionally with training programs, recruiting and access to grants and other financial resources. This can be particularly helpful for smaller contractors who lack the company resources to pursue these opportunities on their own.”

The industry desperately needs qualified, skilled craft professionals to build America. (Photo courtesy of of Associated Builders and Contractors)

Keith Wentworth, president of Metal Building Institute (MBI) and vice president of Hampstead, N.H.-based Dutton & Garfield, says both MBI and MBCEA (Metal Building Contractors Erectors Association) are well aware of the impact of the labor shortage to their members. He says that the idea for the Metal Construction News summit was formed at one of their work groups in 2017.

“Following that lead, in 2020, MBI initiated an ad hoc group of similar associations to discuss what was working and how we could combine resources,” Wentworth adds. “We had representation from the American Council for Construction Education, ABC, Manufacturers Resource Center, MBMA, MCA, Metal Roofing Alliance and National Association of Home Builders. The group met several times with some limited success. We continue to cross-post/share on social media to expand all of our reach. Perhaps the most notable progress to combat the labor shortage has been between MBCEA, MBI and NCCER. These three non-profits have embarked on a new initiative to create a complete Metal Building Assembly Training program that goes deep enough to qualify as a formal apprenticeship program and is robust enough to create craft workers skilled in the unique needs of metal buildings.”

McKay Daniels, NRCA’s CEO, believes roofing industry’s labor shortages have been longstanding and widespread. “Correcting the growing crisis won’t be fast or easy but NRCA remains focused on improving the situation and helping contractors navigate and overcome the challenges. Labor shortages are occurring nationwide but are acutely felt in the trades and roofing in particular. NRCA is continuing to educate and advocate with Congress on the need for immigration reform that protects our sovereignty while addressing the workforce deficits our nation faces. We’re helping contractors improve their employee retention via NRCA’s Qualified Trainer program and giving metal installation contractors a way to certify and distinguish themselves from their competition via NRCA’s ProCertification program.”

(Photo courtesy of Metal Roofing Alliance)