As temperatures (hopefully) start to warm up, construction projects should also pick up around the Midwest in advance of the summer crunch. But while April showers bring May flowers, the same isn’t necessarily true for construction turnaround in today’s market. The construction industry is facing challenges somewhat unique within the job market; labor shortages are bucking against previous trends of historically low unemployment. Unlike years prior, this round of labor tightening is accelerating new territory in technology and management.
The US labor market is currently enjoying four percent unemployment. Bloomberg recently released a piece that provides more insight into what this looks like for communities that are already experiencing what economists call “full employment;” essentially, industries such as manufacturing are seeing a smaller and less qualified applicant pool as professional and business services continue to spur economic growth.
For design and construction labor, the challenge digs even deeper; the historically low unemployment is unfolding against a backdrop of a growing movement to diversify project teams. Many privately-held building owners – such as community hospitals and civic institutions – are following the lead of government employers by requiring minimum levels of minority, women and veteran-owned contractors, engineers and designers. This is an absolutely needed change on the job-site and critical for the industry in the long term, but with a relatively small number of firms that satisfy these requirements, it can be a challenge to keep up with demand.
To adapt, construction owners are applying new tactics to staffing teams, monitoring job sites and pooling resources to ensure on-time project delivery. Employing team-based strategies where junior staff are paired with senior leaders help ensure consistent (and clear) communication. From a technology perspective, firms are moving away from sketches on paper to drawing them out on iPads, allowing design and construction updates to be relayed in real-time across teams. Site visits follow a more automated process, with fewer people present and updates relayed in real-time via smart devices to those back at the office or in remote locations.
The advance of communications technology to ease staffing is typical in a labor crunch, but this cycle is being augmented by the recent wave of GPS and robotic tools linked to BIM models. Due to lack of physical (aka human) staff, machines now lay out studs and locate materials onsite; there is more reliance on technology to assemble walls, prefabricate mechanicals, and link the virtual and physical than ever before.
Should unemployment continue to stay at four percent or decrease, construction owners must continue to adapt and alter recruitment strategies to fill much-needed spots on their teams. Some companies are already recruiting potential employees while they are still in college, training them in real-life scenarios with senior team leads. Engaging early will help team members adjust to work styles, communication tactics and potentially ramp up the time it takes to get new employees working onsite.
It’s an exciting time for the construction industry. The perfect storm of labor constriction, collaborative mentoring and robotic technologies is changing the culture of design and construction. Techniques that were recently considered cutting edge or lean behaviors are now standard practice. We are witnessing much more than a market adapting to constraint; there is an acceleration of tools and techniques that are finally reflecting the rate of improvement experienced in other industries. Our building sector is finally entering the “start-up” age.