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Where Are All the Workers?

New data suggests the construction industry is adding new workers, but at a rather modest pace that may not be enough to fill in the gap left behind by a retiring workforce and those who left the industry during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Will it be enough? And how will we fill in the gap? I recently had a roundtable conversation that will help us answer some of these questions.

First, let’s look at some hard numbers. Total construction employment moved up by only 1,000 employees to 7,721,000 in October, an increase of 266,000 or 3.6% from a year earlier, according to the AGC (Associated General Contractors of America). Association officials say the small increase in construction employment is an indication of how hard it has become for construction firms to find qualified workers to hire.

The industry is taking some of the right steps to appeal to workers. Pay levels in the construction industry continued to increase in October. The average hourly earnings in construction went from $33.41 in October 2021 to $35.27 last month, an increase of 5.6%. Even with the pay increase, the unemployment rate among jobseekers with construction experience also increased slightly from 4% in October 2021 to 4.1% last month. The number of unemployed construction workers went from 398,000 in October 2021 to 419,000 in October of 2022.

Finding Solutions

We all know this is a challenge facing many, so what is the solution? AGC points to legislation, urging the Biden administration and Congress to take steps to address construction workforce shortages. More specifically, it suggests allowing more people to lawfully enter the country who have construction experience to provide short-term relief. At the same time, the association continues to urge leaders to address a funding gap that puts $5 federal dollars into college-focused education programs for every dollar invested in career and technical education.

Legislation is one route. Another is the right guidance. Let me explain. I recently had the opportunity to have a roundtable discussion with some powerhouse women in the construction industry—Lori Hufford, VP, engineering collaboration, Bentley Systems, Kat Lord-Levins, chief success officer and SVP, Bentley Systems, Claire Rutkowski, CIO and SVP, Bentley Systems—and we discussed this very topic.

One big consensus is that we need to guide the conversation and appeal to the younger generations.  Lord-Levins says, “The gap is really happening where we will have to start to fill the pipeline. We have to mentor people. We have to influence the change and get more people interested back into the whole infrastructure, the importance of infrastructure. They talk about the social aspects of what the younger generation wants to change in the world today. Infrastructure is the answer to that. Helping to actually influence in this pipe. We have to mentor and show them the importance of the world of infrastructure in general. What a difference it makes.”

Where does this start? Quite simply, with everybody. We need buy-in from parents, schools, corporations, government, and more. We need everyone to come together to make a difference. Hufford suggests schools should provide the students with the tools and technologies and the support that they need to get back in the classroom and make sure they are learning what they need to learn. Meanwhile, companies need to partner with schools and work very closely with them to make sure they are learning the right skills and that when they come into the workplace, they are able to be productive.

Bringing Women to the Workforce

Perhaps the solution lies in even greater within DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion). Rutkowski points specifically to the gap in the number of women who enter the engineering workforce and the disparity in the number of women who stay in the engineering workforce—and construction as well. She suggests one of the biggest hurdles is that young women don’t see other women in the role.

Further compounding the predicament, COVID-19 was detrimental, as even more women retreated from workforce. In fact, Rutkowski says we went back about 30 years because of COVID.

“More women left the workforce than men and they have been slower to return,” she says. “That is not just in engineering, that is across all disciplines. Women have been slower to return, but they are returning. So, when we talk about lessons learned from the pandemic, I think one of the things we have learned is the appropriate application of technology can help enable remote teams, which can help promote better work-life balance and I think that in and of itself has helped women because there is more flexibility.”

The Attraction of Technology

Technology is also a very big catalyst for filling in the labor gap. It can serve two purposes. Automation can take over where the gap of workers has left off, but it can also entice people to consider a career in construction and engineering.

Hufford has an interesting perspective on this, suggesting technology might bring in people who might not have been in infrastructure or engineering into the field. It could bring in people who are interested in data mining, AI (artificial intelligence), and machine learning.

She says, “Those same technology skills are what is needed to move infrastructure forward. It really is an opportunity, not just a challenge, for us to bring more diversity into the workforce, but in doing that, we do have to entice them for the why. What is the why? Millennials and young students, they want to have an impact on the world. There is no better way to have an impact on the world than to work in infrastructure.”

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