Water Design-Build Council Blog

Addressing the Craft Labor Shortage

“Can we fix it? Yes, we can!”

silvia-brazzoduro-431498-unsplashIf you raised a child in the early 2000s you may be hearing the enthusiastic proclamation from the popular animated children’s series Bob the Builder echoing in your ears at this very moment. The series featured Bob, the resident builder, his partners, and a fleet of talking yellow iron. Bob the Builder was my daughter’s favorite show – her favorite character was Scoop, a backhoe loader, or an “I-Dig-Dirt,” as she called it. As a descendant of a proud line of craft laborers including legacy carpenters, crane operators, and yes, even a large backhoe operator, I entertained the thought that maybe, just maybe, my daughter might land in the construction industry, spurred by her admiration of the determined and optimistic Bob and his talking fleet of yellow iron.

Fast forward nearly 20 years and the United States is seeing a severe shortage in skilled craft labor in the workforce. This trend that has been escalating over the last several years with no immediate resolution in sight has been the source of surveys and research from leading construction associations, including the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), Construction Cost Index, and Dodge Data and Analytics. AGC recently reported that “of the more than 1,600 survey respondents, 70 percent said they are having difficulty filling hourly craft positions.” The AGC developed the Workforce Development Plan “to address these shortages [that] are the consequence of a series of policy, education, demographic and economic factors that have decimated the once robust education pipeline for training new construction workers.”

There are multiple factors that may be driving the craft labor shortage: ample employment choices for craft laborers, union regulations, a mature work force, and waning interest in craft labor as a profession.

I had the opportunity to visit with Flatiron’s Vice President of Human Resources, Marybeth Gallagher, to gauge her observations of this trend, address some of the reasons why the lack of skilled craft labor perpetuates and discuss near- and long-term solutions to address this crisis. 

Gallagher states, “The construction industry tends to experience some of the most significant workforce shortage impacts in the economy for multi-dimensional reasons, including the nation’s current unemployment rates and availability of workers, the limited availability of vocational programs in schools that expose students to the trades, union regulations, workers nearing retirement age, and others.”

When a workforce is comprised of workers with skill sets that might fit a number of industries, those industries are forced to compete for resources. For example, craft laborers in the construction industry pool may also be considering opportunities in oil and gas; mining; and manufacturing industries, among others. In a thriving economy, the workforce has options.

The construction industry is also subject to union regulations. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 14 percent of the construction workforce belong to labor unions. Labor unions are designed to protect workers’ interests. Some contend, though, that unions “reduce productivity through contract clauses that restrict management's ability to organize work activity or impose restrictions on the kinds of jobs workers may perform.”

The skilled craft laborers of generations past that literally built the communities in which we live are retiring. AGC’s Workforce Development Plan “estimates that the construction industry will need to add 1.5 million new workers to keep pace with demand and replace retirees,” as of 2015. As these skilled professionals leave, their passion, knowledge, mentorship, and once strong presence in the workforce are leaving a large void. The significant legacy of the profession may be lost unless we can find a way to revitalize the waning interest in craft labor as a viable, and much needed, profession.

This begs the question, why doesn’t anyone aspire to be Bob the Builder anymore?  

The AGC’s Workforce Development Plan notes that the decreasing number of craft professionals is in part due to lack of education. “A number of changing trends have combined to cripple what was once a robust education pipeline for new construction workers. Those factors include the dismantling of the public vocational and technical education programs, declining participation in union apprenticeship training, and an increasing focus on college preparatory programs at the high school level.”

Near-term options to address the craft labor shortage include greater emphasis on industry and company-sponsored craft training programs, safety education, specialized equipment and technology for worker efficiency, doing more with less, and offering attractive incentive options to entice new talent, or retain the existing talented workforce. Long term, education and awareness towards vocational and trade training is needed from a young age to reinvigorate this vital human resource in our economy.

“Can We Fix It?” Yes, together we can.

Kristine Thorpe has 19 years as a business development professional with the majority of her career focused in the water and environment sector. She has worked in the design, environmental, and construction industries, including in her current role as Corporate Business Development Manager for Flatiron Constructors’ U.S. Water Group.


Topics: design-build, Education, craft labor