As the pandemic continues to impact every corner of the economy, it has also contributed to intensifying the labor shortage. Industries from retail to manufacturing are experiencing worker shortages as employers ramp up competition and raise wages. According to a recent news release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the United States saw a record 10.9 million job openings in July, an increase of 6.9%. Although job openings declined to 10.4 million in August, in the construction industry, total separations continued to outpace new hires. Construction is still among the top 10 industries shedding workers. 

A recent workforce survey conducted by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) and Autodesk outlined the hiring challenges construction firms face. Eighty-nine percent of these firms say they’re struggling to hire hourly workers, and 86% can’t fill salaried positions.

Instead of a qualified talent pool, many firms are turning away candidates who don’t have the right skills, enough experience, or the ability to pass a drug test. These challenges “… put firms under enormous pressure to make sure their current workers don’t walk out the door,” says Brian Turmail, Vice President, Public Affairs and Strategic Initiatives, at AGC.

With the right approach, construction firms can retain the workers they do have and develop these individuals into the leaders of tomorrow. Here, Turmail explores the hiring roadblocks in construction and offers ways that firms can retain construction workers for a long time to come.

What’s driving the labor shortage?

A shortage of qualified applicants is the main issue. This shortage didn’t pop up on its own. After the recession of 2008, federal, state, and local governments decided to disinvest in vocational education at the Pre-K through 12th grade levels. Instead, they focused entirely on college students for recruitment, at the cost of the trades. “That has led to very few middle school and high school students being exposed to construction as a career choice,” Turmail says. “They’re not taught the skills they need for careers in craft industries such as ours.”

An NPR article shows the fallout from the disinvestment in vocational education. In Washington state, high-paying jobs in skilled trades sit empty as high school students are directed toward college. All the while, on a national level, 30% of high school graduates who attend four-year public universities haven’t earned a degree within six years. The gap in graduation rate shows that a traditional college education may not be the best fit for every student, and that a career in the trades could be just what some students need.

The NPR article goes on to state that “construction, along with health care and personal care, will account for one-third of all new jobs through 2022.” And according to the U.S. Department of Education, there will be 68% more job openings in infrastructure-related fields in the next few years than there are people training to fill them.

The lack of exposure to craft careers, especially at the middle school and high school levels, has compelled construction firms to introduce young people to the industry and teach incoming workers the skills they need to perform safely — or perform at all. “A labor shortage like this is absolutely something we worry about,” Turmail says. “If you look at the AGC survey, many of our members tell us they’re lowering hiring standards and rolling back job requirements because they can’t find qualified workers. The pool of candidates is too small, so they’re widening their net and making exceptions they didn’t make in the past.”

To address the qualified labor shortfall, Turmail offers the following solutions.

Build an inclusive culture

Attracting new talent, along with retaining your current team, starts with building a culture that people want to be part of. In an effort to create the kinds of cultures that attract individuals to the construction industry, the Associated General Contractors of America launched its Culture of CARE curriculum in April 2020. Designed for workers in the office and in the field, Culture of CARE is built upon four principles: Commit, Attract, Retain, and Empower. “The goal is to help firms create work environments where people feel they belong and want to stay,” Turmail says.

The curriculum shows how to provide helpful feedback to new hires, how to make them feel included, and how to approach mentoring. An AGC chapter devised the curriculum in 2018 before the association rolled it out nationally. In the last year-and-a-half, more than 600 firms have adopted the program.

“Having awareness is step one to building a positive, more inclusive work environment that makes workers want to stay,” Turmail says. With Culture of CARE as their guide, AGC member firms are raising pay, offering bonuses, improving benefits, and helping contractors grow their careers. The association is receiving praise from firms who say Culture of CARE is increasing their retention rates dramatically.

Invest in diverse technologies 

In the AGC survey, 57% of firms say they’ve increased the rate of technology adoption in the last 12 months, and 60% say they plan to adopt new technology in the next year. While the survey didn’t broach which technologies construction firms are turning to, a recent article in the trade magazine Construction Dive outlines current technological trends. Technologies rooted in artificial intelligence (AI) and automation are finding a foothold in the construction industry. So are robotics that reduce manufacturing times and costs, as firms seek to reduce their industrial footprint and dependence on manual labor.

As the labor shortage looms over the construction industry, technologies that improve safety, efficiency, and productivity have become transformational in helping construction firms recruit, onboard, and retain talent. In August, Buildforce Technologies, whose app helps to identify, screen, and place construction professionals, announced a $4 million capital raise. “The latest technologies empower firms to bring people in and train them up on their own,” Turmail says. “They give firms a competitive advantage, because firms can use them to cultivate their own talent.”

To simulate work on job sites, many firms are turning to virtual reality programs that allow new contractors to learn in controlled environments. “Learning virtually means new contractors can build the skills necessary for a construction career without being crushed by heavy equipment or falling debris,” Turmail says. Collision-avoidance technologies, and video telematics solutions that foster efficiency and safety are finding their footing in the industry as well. 

Dashcams, for example, are proving their value by enhancing contractors’ awareness behind the wheel. Through artificial intelligence and computer vision, the AI Dashcam from Motive can alert contractors to unsafe driving habits in real time, stopping accidents before they happen. In promoting continuous improvement and self-awareness, they can help contractors proactively perfect their driving skills, enhance professionalism, and retain their jobs while they grow.

Reward workers for a job well done

A 2019 Oregon State study titled “What Do Construction Workers Really Want?” finds reward and recognition are especially important in fields like construction, “where low levels of reward have a significant negative impact on a worker’s well-being.”

The study cites the impact of reward in achieving safe outcomes in construction. Motivation, it turns out, is a key factor in preventing accidents. And what better way to motivate than through recognition and reward? Of the firms responding to the AGC survey, more than one-third say they’ve provided hiring bonuses or incentives.

To reinforce safety-first behaviors, supervisors should offer recognition that’s both timely and sincere. When a contractor avoids an accident through exceptional awareness, for example, be sure to acknowledge the effort the same day, or the next day at the latest. Timely recognition sends the signal that the action was worthy of praise. And while financial incentives are always appreciated, tickets to a game, extra time off, or lunch out with the team can bring a more personal touch.

Whichever method you choose, incentivizing workers has been proven to boost morale, improve productivity, and increase retention. Workers who are rewarded are more loyal, more engaged, and feel more valued. 

Create a sense of community

On job sites, there’s a level of familiarity among people with different ranks. That sense of community is a big opportunity for construction firms. If you’re not capitalizing on this communal sensibility, consider ways you can. “There’s a sense of family in construction that you don’t see in other industries,” Turmail says. “A lot of it comes from the fact that contractors thrive on teamwork. They enjoy working together to build something that will have a lasting legacy.”

Teamwork gives contractors a sense of camaraderie that produces within crew members a shared sense of pride when a project is completed. Firms can generate camaraderie off the job, too, by hosting community service projects, barbecues, and after-work gatherings. “Firms investing in their workers, providing opportunities for long-term growth, and making them feel part of a team are going to be most successful in attracting and retaining talent,” Turmail says. 

Offer leadership training

“Construction workers are hungry for more responsibility,” Turmail says. “They want opportunities to lead — not just to work.” It’s up to firms to give contractors the responsibility they crave. Help them see a path forward by discussing growth opportunities with top performers. When developing future leaders, ask contractors where they want to go within the company. Then you can devise a plan for them to get there. Ask senior people on your team to mentor your most promising up-and-comers, or offer training on effective communication, negotiation, and teamwork — all of which are common traits in strong leaders.

When used to their full capacity, safety technologies help construction firms identify their most talented contractors and develop their strengths. Tools like Motive’s AI Dashcam can showcase construction workers’ safe driving habits, giving managers visibility into which workers deserve reward and recognition. Learn more about the AI Dashcam and how it can help you retain and celebrate your safest workers.