The Construction Industry’s Challenge to Attract Workers
By Earl R Hall, Executive Director, Syracuse Builders Exchange
Ten years ago, construction industry executives anticipated that in just a few years there would be national and local shortage of skilled craftsmen and craftswomen. The data suggested a large percentage of those eligible would retire, and the next generation worker was not being attracted and retained to fill those positions. In addition, the increased construction activity across the country, in particular the larger urban cities and surrounding regions, would require an increased supply of labor to support construction building and highway demand.
Today the industry continues to address challenges associated with a skilled labor shortage. New York State is at the epicenter of the issue, struggling to attract apprentices and journeymen and women alike into a very physically demanding industry, which also ranks as one of the most dangerous professions in the United States.
Attracting people into the industry throughout central New York has always been a challenge. For decades employers and union apprenticeship programs have attempted to identify and attract people of all sexes, races, skin color and ethnicity. Unfortunately, in some cases a person might hold an adverse opinion of construction professions. Others may be dissuaded from exploring a career in construction because of the physical demands and working at times in difficult working and environmental conditions. Others have complained the average construction worker may only work 1,600 — 1,800 hours per year. Recently, a barrier to entry for some is the lack of transportation and childcare. Those reasons are not to be ignored and must be addressed when attempting to attract future candidates into the industry.
As a college student at Syracuse University in the late 1980s, I enjoyed coming home for the summer; however, with that came the understanding that I needed to work and make enough money to afford to return to college.
For five summers I worked as a laborer for various union contractors, working 3 months at a time. Whether it was as a mason tender working for Hopkins & Reilly alongside Bricklayers Local 2, Operating Engineers Local 545 and Laborers Local 333 union members at the Great Northern Mall or at the North Medical Center; running a jackhammer 8 hours a day on the bridge decks over Route 690 and West Street; or performing demolition work at Crouse Irving Hospital, I developed a tremendous amount of admiration and respect for those career construction workers. Those career union members finely tuned their skills and obtained a wide variety of safety training certificates in an effort to deliver the finest construction worker any employer would want on their team. The diverse men and women on those projects taught me to work hard, be efficient and work safely. I had no business earning the same hourly pay as the career union member working alongside of me, but they accepted me as a member of their team.
I would never trade those summers for anything as those experiences helped me better understand the hard work, effort and sacrifices that career construction workers put forth to become professionals at their craft. Along with the professionalism came their desire to attain as much education and safety related content as possible to provide and work in a safe working environment. Obtaining safety training certificates not only educated the workers on how to work safely on job sites but made the worker more marketable to other contractors. Developing career skills, job site experiences and safety training certifications over a long period of time created the ultimate career construction worker.
An Employer’s Vision
Employers and union apprenticeship programs today have evolved to adapt to the challenges identified above. Both union and non-union employers alike strive for long-term, career-oriented employees in their companies for a variety of reasons. Employers want people who are self-motivated, safety-conscious, reliable, and hardworking who can get to and from their place of employment daily.
One of the top priorities of employers is to provide their employees with a safe working environment, all the necessary safety equipment and all the necessary and required education and safety training. A safe workforce is a productive workforce. Workers’ compensation claims are a lose-lose situation for any employer as one of their employees is now injured, and the company’s workers compensation insurance premium will increase. Keeping employees safe on dangerous job sites is paramount to an employer’s ability to be successful and profitable.
Elected officials and bureaucrats alike have required that workforce development and contract award goals be included on public work projects. Those noble goals may be in the form of contract awards to minority, women, and service-disabled veteran owned businesses (“M/W/SDV”), preferential bid discounts afforded to the above or diversity hiring goals of employees. Although such are well intended goals, too often capacity to achieve such goals may not exist in the region where such goals are assigned. Over the years, the Syracuse Builders Exchange has offered educational courses to help M/W/SDV grow businesses to build capacity of such employers in the central New York region.
Local and regional socio-economic issues championed by community leaders, activists and politicians have also delivered a narrative on the necessity of diverse workforces in the industry. While laudable and desired, capacity problems remain in that such required targeted people in society have not been attracted to the industry for reasons stated previously. How do employers, and the industry in general, overcome these issues and attract people of all races, color, sex, and ethnicities to create a diverse workforce in the construction industry?
While there may be multiple, well intended groups focusing on workforce development initiatives for specific segments of society or individual projects, the Syracuse Builders Exchange is committed to attracting and retaining all people throughout our 18-county central New York region. Creating and maintaining a sustainable workforce development program must be inclusive. Local and regional initiatives should be embraced so long as they do not adversely impact existing career construction workers or the employers who hire them.
Focusing on training potential workers for specific, short-term construction projects should be used as a launching pad for the next generation construction worker. Identifying those candidates from socio-economic challenged and low-income segments of our society is difficult, yet an initiative worth pursuing for many reasons. I challenge those involved in such initiatives to think long-term and focus on creating a career construction worker. A construction worker who will stay engaged in the industry and make construction his or her career. While community leaders, elected officials and bureaucrats look to address local problems that impact local constituents, the construction industry should take advantage of this in an effort to promote a career in construction and the amazing benefits and opportunities the industry has to offer on a long-term basis.
Over the years, I have served on the Syracuse City School District’s (“SCSD”) Career and Technical Education (“CTE”) Advisory Board to help develop curriculum in the construction related pathways offered to students in the SCSD. The CTE program attracts students entering middle school who may not have an interest in higher education, and who would rather choose a career pathway to enter the workforce upon high school graduation. The SCSD CTE program targets all students in the city of Syracuse, including but not limited to those in defined “low income” communities. It targets students of all races, color, sex, and ethnicities, and serves as a resource to nurturing young students into career pathways for which the industry is in dire need.
The Syracuse Builders Exchange will continue to be a leader in providing education and safety training content to construction industry employers and their employees. We will continue to participate and be engaged in developing the next generation construction worker on a regional and local basis. While public officials have assigned contract and hiring goals based upon race, skin color and ethnicity, the Builders Exchange will continue to promote construction career opportunities to all people of all races, skin colors and ethnicities in an effort to build not only such “goal” capacities in the industry, but to fill voids left by those career construction workers who have retired.
As a fiduciary to the Syracuse Builders Exchange, my job is to act in the best interest of the members of the Association, their employees, and the construction industry in general. Serving in the best interest of the construction industry in general covers a broad spectrum of people, ideas, interests, and entities. Diversity and inclusion of all people in the industry will continue to be at the forefront of our workforce development campaigns and initiatives. Not because governmental entities, politicians, community leaders or bureaucrats say so, but because such has always been the approach when identifying, attracting and retaining our next generation construction worker.