Ever since the pandemic, labor shortages have made headlines across the country, plaguing a number of industries and businesses of all types and sizes. Most notably, the construction industry, which was facing a labor shortage prior to the pandemic, has seen its labor shortage amplified post-pandemic. The construction industry has been struggling, to put it bluntly, to find skilled tradespeople to fill high in-demand positions. But why could this be?
A key driving factor is the modern-day prioritization of a college education when compared to previous generations. For instance, in most of the 1900’s, the trades were saturated with plenty of skilled laborers. For various reasons, a college education was not as common for the average individual as it is today. However, as time has passed, there has been a transition in educational and career goals, where pursuing a college education is now an emphasis in many U.S. households. There are a multitude of reasons for this — parents wanting more for their children, grade schools placing more of an emphasis on a higher education versus working the trades, and students feeling that without a college education their professional careers and opportunities will be limited when compared to their peers1. In addition, rapid advancements in technology have created a demand for more STEM educated employees in the workforce, typically requiring a college degree. Figure 1 below outlines the upward trend of the U.S. population that attained a college degree from the 1960’s onward.
Figure 1: Percentage of U.S. Population with a High School and College Degree from 1960-2021
As such, skilled tradespeople in the workforce are few and far between. Construction firms are facing pressure to fill open positions, in many scenarios using only a resume to onboard a skilled tradesperson, who may or may not actually have the skillset required for the role3. As identified by the Associated General Contractors of America and Autodesk, “78% of construction companies are having difficulty hiring workers…”
The labor shortage is further amplified by the turnover rate of skilled tradesmen/women when compared to the rate of new laborers and apprentices entering the trades. It is estimated that “40% of the 12 million people in the skilled trades workforce are over the age of 45, with nearly half of those workers over the age of 55, and less than 9% of workers aged 19-24 entering the trades.” 5 In addition, over 40% of the construction workforce in the U.S. is expected to retire in the next decade4. To further add pressure to the industry’s labor shortage, the $1 trillion infrastructure bill passed in 2021 has created a need for an additional 546,000 construction employees in 2023 to meet labor demand. This does not include employees that are recruited as part of the typical yearly hiring pace.
One field of construction that is feeling the brunt of the labor shortage is the building automation and controls industry. Building automation and controls have become increasingly advanced in a relatively short time span, where even skilled controls contractors, engineers, and technicians are facing difficulties in keeping up with the continuously improving and innovative technologies. Coupled with the existing labor shortage affecting the industry, it is no surprise that controls personnel are lagging on construction schedules and facing controls conflicts on active jobsites. Figure 1 below conservatively projects the building automation industry job growth versus the labor force, assuming the growth of the building automation industry will be at a comparable pace to the HVAC industry. The projection is quite concerning, as it estimates a reduction in the building automation labor force over the next 20 years, all while the open positions increase linearly. If new techniques are not implemented to attract more talent to the building automation and controls industry, it is likely that there will be a stunt in the rate of construction growth in the coming years.
However, all hope is not lost. It is reported that there have been new and innovative strategies and incentives to attract new talent to the trades as well as retain existing talent. For instance, apprenticeship programs, which provide on-the-job training, have been implemented to assist in hiring new talent — providing new recruits with the knowledge and confidence needed to succeed in a new career. To overcome the challenges of high turnover, companies are implementing employee retention programs that focus on employee engagement, training, and career development as well as providing benefits like flexible schedules and remote work options8. Technology in the construction industry is constantly evolving and companies are looking for technologically savvy personnel to stay competitive. In addition, college enrollments are now declining.9 Whether a result of the pandemic and forced online learning, the skyrocketing cost of tuition, or other factors — fewer young adults are pursuing post-secondary education. The construction industry requires a highly skilled and competent workforce and offers healthy career growth; it is not simply a career “plan B.” Let’s just hope that these new measures work to replenish interest in the trades and the shift in “college as the only option” stay in alignment and reinvigorate a skilled workforce ready to build America’s future.
Stay tuned for the full guide, coming later this quarter.
Mechanical Project Engineer