Labor pains: Industry woos next-gen recruits

Even before the Great Recession and the ensuing dive in building activity that prompted countless laborers, carpenters, bricklayers, electricians, and ironworkers to rethink their careers, or even retire, our industry faced a very familiar foe: lack of qualified labor.

Well, 10 years later, what’s gone around has now come around, says Brian Turmail, senior executive director at the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC). “In 2006, labor was the industry’s No. 1 concern,” Turmail recalls. “You’ve heard the Willie Nelson song, Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys? Well, in this case, it was Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Builders.”

For years, the nation had been undergoing a cultural shift, he explains, where society had come to discourage children from blue-collar careers. “More and more parents, high schools, even the government, began placing increasing emphasis on high school students to pursue college educations rather than vocational and technical educations in fields like construction,” says Turmail.

Over a period of decades, public vo-tech programs were dismantled as the federal government and other entities shifted funding to college prep programs. As a result, the labor pipeline that ultimately burst in 2009 already was rusting, which helped to stretch the existing labor gap to dire proportions nationally.

“Older skilled craftsmen retired, and many experienced mid-career craftsmen left the industry, (so) now we’re facing a serious lack of young, trained craftsmen to perform the work and perform it safely,” adds Mike Glavin, director of workforce development policy and programs at nonunion Associated Builders & Contractors (ABC).

So by necessity, across the U.S., recruitment efforts are gaining momentum. In San Francisco, for example, DPR Construction this fall alone will attend more than 30 college career days from coast to coast, including fairs hosted by Stanford and UCLA on the West Coast, to Purdue, Michigan State, Texas A&M, Georgia Tech, and others further East. With its goal “to be one of the most admired companies by 2030,” DPR targets talent with a simple, ambitious slogan: “We exist to build great things.

Among the other aspirational goals on DPR’s site: “Over the next 30 years, our people practices will be recognized as being as progressive and influential as Hewlett Packard’s were over the last 50 years.”


In New England, Providence RI-based Gilbane Building Co. also is being proactive nationally in trying to replenish not just its own ranks, but that of the industry, as a whole. Toward that end, the 143-year-old builder is reaching out to millennials and younger, with internal initiatives that encourage continuing education and career advancement via “Gilbane University” (see below), as well as national sponsorship of the ACE Mentor Program, the Washington DC-based nonprofit. Started in 2002 by retired Thornton-Tomasetti co-founder Charlie Thornton, ACE so far has mentored over 100,000 high school students nationwide and awarded more than $14 million combined in annual scholarships. Gilbane CEO Tom Gilbane Jr., is ACE Mentor’s national chair. Turner Construction CEO Peter Davoren is vice chair.

Currently, some 8,000 students participate with ACE Mentor chapters and affiliates each year. The group’s National Strategic Plan, 2016-2021, calls for increasing that yearly total to at least 10,000.

The dire labor situation also is worrying and inspiring other industry players like Mike Rydin, founder and CEO of Sugarland TX-based software developer HCSS. Last year, the 30-year-old firm created the first national Construction Intern Awards program “to recognize the strongest interns in the industry, as well as the companies with the best construction internship programs across the U.S. and Canada.”

Lest one think the awards are focused solely on HCSS customers, the firm has assembled an impressive array of national industry judges to select its annual winners. Among other dignitaries, the group includes the CEOs of AGC, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA); the Construction Financial Management Association (CFMA); the National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA); and the American Council for Construction Education (ACCE). The first awards, given in 2015, included $25,000 in scholarships. Already, HCSS says that amount has doubled to $50,000 for this year.

Not satisfied with just starting the intern awards program, HCSS’s Rydin also launched I BUILD AMERICA late last year, an unabashed love letter to an under-appreciated industry. It aims to be “a place to share stories and ideas that show the value of, and pride in, construction… and that recognizes the value that the men and women in construction bring to our modern life,” the site reads. “Our ultimate goal is that young people will see construction as the wonderful career that it is, so more of them will want to be a part of it… America needs more people to go into the trades, as well as into engineering and construction management.”

“Our ultimate goal is for young people to see construction as the wonderful career that it is, so they will want to be part of it”

— ‘I build america’ mission statement

I Build America: The brainchild of HCSS founder Mike Rydin, this broad, industry-wide promotion is less than a year old, but has support well beyond the 30-yr-old software firm’s customer base. #ibuildamerica

Average ages, wages rising

Ironically, economic barriers have steered some aspiring white-collar workers back into construction. For instance, crushing student loans have caused more than a few NYC-based millennials to reverse course and take blue-collar jobs, with state apprenticeship programs sometimes picking up the tab, noted Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building & Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, in a recent interview with The New York Post. All good news, should that trend blossom as a widespread phenomenon. In the meantime, though, current numbers across the U.S. speak for themselves.

The U.S. construction workforce currently numbers 6.9 million, having added 2 million since the recession. Still, that’s 1.1 million short of its pre-recession high, according to AGC. In many areas, aging workers are departing jobsites faster than they can be replaced. “The age of the average construction worker in Tennessee is 50,” notes AGC of Tennessee CEO Grace Masterson. “For every five in the state who leave the industry, only one steps in to fill their shoes.”

ABC member firm Ferrer Mechanical Services in Indianapolis is seeing the same trends. “I’m 43 years old and considered the youngster in my firm,” says Ferrer President Kris Griffith. “I’d say the average age of our employees is about 50.”

Meantime, U.S. construction activity through the first six months of 2016 far outpaced the same period in 2015, prompting firms to add 11,000* jobs to their rosters in July, but leaving the labor pool with its lowest number of unemployed workers since 2000, notes AGC chief economist Ken Simonson. As a result, the competition is driving wages up — 10% in the past year — to an average of $28.20 per hour.


“With a lack of new blood, it’s not unusual today to see workers jump firms for an additional $2 to $3 per hour,” says Dr. Mittie Copeland-Cannon, new manager of workforce development in Tucker GA for London-based energy infrastructure giant AMEC Foster Wheeler. Rooted in two NY-NJ-based industry icons (AMEC includes the former Morse-Diesel), today the 40,000-person oil & gas veteran has recast itself as a sustainability champion. That new role is now a major emphasis of its campus recruiting, which in the U.S. includes increased outreach with colleges like Clemson University, which now offer expanded curricula in construction management and environmental engineering.

Geographically widespread, shortages are notably acute among skilled craft workers, especially those involved in carpentry, sheet metal, concrete, electricity and roofing, adds ABC’s Glavin. This summer, general contractor Brasfield & Gorrie, Birmingham AL, told reporters that it was recruiting bricklayers and wood framers from as far as Texas, and extending 20 hours of overtime to workers in order to complete a mixed-use facility in Nashville TN, on schedule, according to published reports.

In some areas, owners have even noted a dearth of competitive bids due to a shortage of subcontractors. For instance, although seven general contractors recently were pre-qualified to bid on a $100-million high school and tech center in Sanford ME, the school district received only two bids and eventually awarded the project to an out-of-state firm, according to the Portland (ME) Press Herald.

‘Why should I work for you?’

As a result, the new employment climate has shifted the balance of power to the job seekers. “We’re working with about 750 construction industry employers across the country and for the majority, recruitment is at the top of their list of issues,” says Andy Jansen, CEO at industry job search engine Hard Hat Hub. “The new challenge for employers is effectively being able to communicate the reason a candidate should consider working for them, instead of their competition. Employers able to re-allocate marketing resources from ‘winning new work’ to attracting the best people will be most successful.”

“The new challenge for employers is effectively being able to communicate the reason a candidate should consider working for them, instead of their competition”

— Andy Jansen, CEO, Hard Hat Hub

To relieve conditions, AGC, ABC, and subcontractor groups, among others, have worked mightily to infuse the industry with new blood, working with state and local chapters and government officials across the U.S. to help develop local recruitment programs and educational curricula to prepare students for careers in construction at both high-school and college levels. ABC, for its part, has established a nationwide network of student chapters at more than 50 colleges and universities that provide construction-related degrees.

Mechanical contractor Griffith, who oversee’s his firm’s recruitment efforts, is now formalizing initiatives to attract young labor, gaining access to high schools through local ABC apprenticeship programs. He also is participating in the “Build Your Future” outreach campaign to high schoolers, an initiative of the 20-year-old National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER), with which ABC partners. Like many others, Griffith also has actively worked to establish better ties with military veterans as potential hires.

Such efforts after 9/11 gave birth in 2002 to Helmets to Hardhats, a national nonprofit that “connects National Guard, Reserve, retired and transitioning active-duty military service members with skilled training and quality career opportunities in the construction industry.”

In some cases, AGC’s efforts to recruit labor have been hit or miss. State chapters have participated in establishing charter schools in several states, but in the case of St. Louis MO, enrollment peaked at just 60% to 70% of capacity, prompting the facility to close its doors, according to Turmail, However, a similar charter school in San Antonio TX “is doing great,” he says.

Industry efforts also have begun to resonate with federal and state legislators, who are coming to realize the “college or bust” movement may have gone too far, Glavin says. “We’re seeing some increases in crafts enrollment as a result of chapter outreach and company outreach to top state government officials and policy makers,” he noted. “It’s been a top-down effort, the emphasis being the importance of having a quality workforce that will allow companies to add jobs and bolster local economies.”

One result is lobbyists are receiving more favorable feedback from federal legislators to reform and reinvigorate the Perkins Act “by increasing funding and [providing] more flexibility for school officials to teach in-demand skills will help prepare more students for high-paying careers in construction,” as AGC CEO Stephen E. Sandherr recently put it.

Construction groups also are developing extensive, multimedia marketing campaigns targeting high school students, educators and counselors. Along with AGC Tennessee, the Home Builders Association of Tennessee, Tennessee Road Builders Association, and other industry groups have established Go Build Tennessee, an undertaking that includes a multi-faceted web site, social media, television and radio commercials and social media, much like its predecessors, Go Build Alabama and Go Build Georgia.

“There are just so many graduates who don’t consider careers in construction, or even know about them,” laments Masterson. “We’re getting tremendous support from the state. It’s completely behind us.”

As they work to replenish their ranks, a task that may require years, industry members also are seeking alternative means to remain competitive. In some instances, hiring unqualified workers and spending up to three years training them, placing special emphasis on worker safety, Turmail said.

Beyond humans

Strapped for time, impatient firms also are becoming increasingly reliant on methods that require fewer workers in the field, including prefabrication and robotics. For instance, global energy player Schneider Electric works in the U.S. with designers and builders to supply customized, factory-built data center modules that variously deliver IT, power and cooling, and are integrated with data center infrastructure components and StruxureWare Data Center Infrastructure Management (DCIM) software.

  • Construction 2036: A new Australian study predicts major jobsite changes in the next 20 years.

In the field, some contractors have even begun deploying robots to perform tasks previously undertaken by tradesmen. At BuiltWorlds‘ recent CEO Tech Forum, Scott Peters, co-founder of Construction Robotics, introduced attendees to SAM, a semi-automated mason that can lay as many as 3,000 bricks per day, about five times as much as an average human (see video below). As designed, bricks are loaded on a conveyor as mortar is poured into a hopper, with SAM lifting the brick with its robotic arm, holding it until sufficient mortar is in place, then placing the brick where it needs to go with assistance from a laser and software, in accordance with a CAD design denoting the precise location of each brick. Now commercially available, Sam can be operated by a single person.

Perhaps labor’s greatest potential game-changing innovation, however, will be 3D-printed buildings. As BuiltWorlds recently reported, China’s WinSun Global earlier this year built the world’s first office building in Dubai, a 2,690-ft structure that required only 17 days to fabricate in a factory environment and two days to install on site. WinSun now is in negotiation with an increasingly overcrowded Saudi Arabia to build 1.5 million concrete homes in Riyadh over the next five years.

So, all over the world, our industry continues to adapt, just not quickly enough for some. “I recently crossed paths with a contractor who told me he was reluctant to pick up the phone for fear it would be an owner asking him to bid on a building his firm didn’t have the manpower to complete,” Turmail says.

Still, even that builder must admit it is much preferable to not having his phone ring at all. In the future, though, perhaps it will be a robot that answers the call.


*Originally reported as 14,000, the July numbers have since been revised downward by BLS.

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