Q&A with Angela Robbins, Director at the Construction Career Collaborative (C3)
What do you see as the cause of labor challenges facing the commercial construction industry today?
Thirty-five years ago, construction craft professionals had high quality training programs provided by employers who understood that having great talent required investment and effort on the part of the company. That all changed in the mid 1980’s when construction hit a tough economic period that drove bids lower. In order to remain competitive, firms broke the traditional employee-employer relationship to achieve cost savings, resulting in a workforce of independent subcontractors. As the skilled workforce aged and moved toward retirement, they were replaced by workers who had little or no formalized training in the trades they were performing. At the same time, a movement to send more children to college eliminated vocational programs in high schools and further damaged the construction industry’s ability to attract young talent. The result of these trends is a severe shortage of the number of craft workers needed to build America. According to a 2019 AGC study, nearly 80% of American construction companies struggle to find qualified workers.
Tell us about C3 and what you’re doing to address these challenges?
C3 was established in 2009 to address the construction workforce crisis in the Greater Houston Region and operates on three basic principles. First, companies need to have W2 employees covered by worker’s compensation insurance. Second, the company needs to provide safety training to all field employees prior to them arriving on a job site. And finally, in order to create skilled workers, a company must provide training in their trade to employees allowing them to create a career path in the industry. These three initiatives will create a safe, skilled and sustainable workforce. Realizing that these things are all change for an industry that has adapted to low bid and all that accompanies it, C3 relies on an owner driven strategy. As owners demand stronger workforce practices from their contractors and specialty contractors, the level of workmanship increases and need for rework decreases.
Do you see any potential opportunities for construction to address the skilled labor shortage in light of COVID-19?
The initiatives mentioned above are geared towards providing long-term elevation of construction as an attractive career path for young adults. However, in our current tumultuous times amidst economic downturn, record levels of unemployment and a global COVID-19 pandemic, there is an insurgence of workers available and looking for essential jobs. The construction industry would be wise to identify ways to connect with these workers who come with a proven track record for work ethic, perseverance and ability to adapt. Companies looking to capitalize on this temporary labor pool overflow should start by identifying construction related competencies that parallel those in other industries. For example, if seeking someone who has ability to manage and maintain a clean environment, hiring restaurant workers for site maintenance and general labor might be good cross over. Additionally, if a company is hiring for interior design installation, a caterer might have skills that transfer around presentation, ability to follow layouts, and work with fabrics and furniture. We would be ill advised to believe that only those with construction experience can work in construction, be it in the field or back office. Additionally, identifying competencies that are not industry specific will aid in explaining a career in construction to young adults who are exploring careers in high schools and community colleges.
Coupling new ways to look at skills, with aggressive recruiting and stronger ability to match skilled workers with the work available in their trades will help to provide companies with labor pools that match work demand and shift us back to a sustainable workforce development environment. Without demanding changes, like C3 recommends, the industry will continue to struggle to find skilled applicants for highly skilled positions. Or even worse not enough workers for all positions.