Beat the Clock: Develop Workers Now to Replace an Aging Workforce

According to a study released earlier this year by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), 69% of architect, engineer and contactor professionals expect a shortage of skilled workers over the next three years, with 32% anticipating a shortage of specialty trade contractors by 2014. In addition, 49% of general contractors are concerned about a shortage of skilled craft workers by 2017.

Such a shortage stems in part from an aging workforce. According to the “Talent Pressures and Aging Workforce Industry Report Series” conducted by the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College, of 58 construction firms surveyed, 50% indicated the aging workforce would “negatively” or “very negatively” affect their business — a figure significantly higher than other business sectors studied ("Aging Workforce Worries Construction Industry", CAWG.org). With baby boomers rapidly approaching retirement age, the industry faces a significant skills gap as fewer skilled workers are available to take their place.

The recession also took a substantial toll on available talent. As the number of construction projects plummeted and unemployment figures skyrocketed toward 30%, workers fled the industry in droves seeking viable employment in other industries. Those who succeeded are unlikely to return to construction any time soon, if at all. And while there are prospects to take their place, few have the necessary skill sets to assume key roles on most jobsites.

Take the Initiative

Construction activity remains soft, but is slowly regaining lost ground. Forecasts are now indicating a possible recovery in most sectors by 2014, with sustained growth from that point forward — at the height of the anticipated shortages cited in the AIA study.

Workforce development is not an overnight process. Many construction jobs call for a specific set of skills and experience gleaned over a period of time. Even if you don’t anticipate adding to your payroll in the near future, it’s important to think long term about your employment needs.

Stephen Sweet, a researcher at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work, recommends assessing the “age diversity” of your workforce to identify the sectors of your business that may be negatively impacted as current employees exit their positions. Once identified, you can develop a strategy (e.g., mentoring or apprenticeship-style programs) to ensure the skills and knowledge represented will be effectively transferred to less experienced employees.

Some contractors are taking this a step further by working within their local communities to expand the available workforce.

Some contractors are proactively working within their local communities to fill the skills gap. For example, Stephen Shelton, owner of Shelton Masonry + Contracting, Homewood, PA, saw a pending shortfall of skilled workers stemming largely from a reduction or elimination of trades training in local high schools. With his own employees all in their 40s and 50s, Shelton founded the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh, a nonprofit program designed to provide training in bricklaying and other necessary construction skills. Of the 50 students who have graduated from the program since 2008, half have found jobs in construction fields.

The end result of Shelton’s and other workforce training initiatives is the advancement of highly desirable skills at a time when the market can still afford to take the time to put them in place. As the industry begins to pick up in pace, the demands of growing backlogs and tight project timelines will make it increasingly difficult to develop needed skills — a Catch-22 scenario that could leave you short when you need them most.

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