Worker Shortages Are in Your Future

Pockets of higher activity in regions of the United States foretell a coming problem -- lack of a skilled construction workforce.

At World of Concrete last month, I had a chance to chat with a concrete contractor/producer who is defying the odds in a down market. Based in the northwest corner of North Dakota, his company is riding a wave of construction activity brought on by the discovery of oil in the region. The firm experienced 45% growth in 2010 at a time when many contractors and material producers were fighting just to stay solvent.

With several $1 million-plus jobs out on bid, the prospects for his business look good for the foreseeable future. Yet, his situation isn’t without its difficulties. First and foremost is finding and keeping employees. Despite the availability of wages well above the national average (McDonald’s is paying $15 per hour with a sign-on bonus), attracting workers to this remote area isn’t easy.

Once they do arrive, there’s the dilemma of securing housing for individuals who may be financial risks due to bankruptcies or foreclosures. The treacherous but apparently necessary solution is to assist workers in securing financing or even purchasing homes on their behalf. This may seem extreme, but it’s a necessary evil to ensure a sufficient workforce to complete projects on time and on budget.

Another problem this particular contractor is facing — typical in periods of high activity — is the lack of “quality” help. Due to the worker shortage, contractors and other businesses are subject to the whims of workers since they can’t afford to discipline or fire unreliable employees.

It may seem hard to fathom now, but your business is likely to face similar challenges in the not so distant future. The construction economy is showing signs of improvement — albeit, at a painfully slow pace — in pockets around the country. As this becomes more widespread, the demand for skilled workers will expand with it.

The problem is that many construction workers, faced with roughly 28% unemployment at the recession’s peak, have left the industry in search of jobs in other fields. This is likely to produce a dearth of qualified staffers once construction activity begins to pick up.

It’s important to think proactively today about recovery and how it will affect your staffing requirements in future. Evaluate your current workforce. Do you have the leadership personnel in place for current and pending jobs? Can you groom younger workers to move into higher level positions as the need develops? What types of training are available to build the skill sets of your current workforce?

The contractor I met out in Vegas brought a handful of staffers to attend educational seminars and walk the show floor, with the priority on education first. One of his competitors brought staff just to walk the show. Given the quality seminars offered, this was a missed opportunity.

As the old idiom goes, “He who hesitates is lost.” The steps you take now to retain and train your workforce will help you to avoid losses of key workers, and enable you to win bids and complete projects profitably in the months ahead.