Ask the Expert: Where Are the Workers?
A look at the construction industry's skilled-labor shortage
By Phil Gusman
Rose Hoyle, Construction Risk Engineer, AXA XL
Q: What are some concrete actions the construction industry has taken to date to address its ongoing skilled-labor shortage?
A: In this computer age, people aren’t regularly exposed to manual labor as part of their daily lives anymore, and in order to drive interest in construction, people have to actually be exposed to it somewhere. I’m happy to see that this has led to a focus on STEM and construction-trade interest geared toward young children—children of both genders, which is a pleasant surprise.
Similarly, there has been an increase in trade-school focus, volunteer work in construction, a revival of apprenticeships, a focus on technology as a “gateway” to provoke techies’ interest in construction, and increased employee retention and recruiting strategies.
Q: The talent shortage isn’t new for construction. Why have the steps taken not yielded the desired results? Are the steps themselves not as effective as hoped, or has it been a lack of commitment to follow through on those steps?
A: Two things: No one has a crystal ball, and time takes time. In 2008, a waning labor force in construction wasn’t necessarily a bad thing because the work also wasn’t there. As the economy started to pick up, it was hard to imagine back then (without a crystal ball) that it would rise to today’s heights.
I don’t think the continued labor shortage is a failure specifically on anyone’s part as much as it is the natural lag in response time to the boom. Initiatives for recruiting, training, retaining, and sustaining staff take time to plan and implement, and all the while trying to build buildings on time and on budget. Especially when we’re home-growing interest from elementary school as discussed above. I believe we’re getting there, and we’re doing it the right way for a sustainable future. It just takes time.
Q: What is one innovative idea that has not been discussed or tried that you believe could make a real difference in addressing the construction industry’s talent shortage? What would it take to make that idea a reality?
A: Reverse-leadership. There are many antiquated processes that are still prevalent in the construction industry that innovative young minds of the upcoming generations (millennials and Generation Z) are attempting to solve with technology and other efficiencies, however they often struggle to get due consideration and adoption in legacy industries like construction.
The statistics show that simply hiring more people alone will not solve this problem. In order to fix this, we must tackle the problem from both directions: cultivating the employee base and making what we’re doing more efficient, thereby enabling us to do more with less. These upcoming generations are the most entrepreneurial humans ever to exist, and they are unafraid to voice their ideas.
Reverse-mentoring (or reverse-leadership) means giving ample weight to seemingly “hair-brained” ideas that, in conjunction with other initiatives, might together solve the labor shortage in construction. We can capitalize on their natural talent and innate leadership by asking, “Why not?” instead of, “Why?” when presented with a new idea, and disregarding the perceived value of the idea based on its creator’s age, experience, or tenure.