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Construction and Manufacturing Sectors Share the Same Labor Pool and Similar Labor Concerns

By Ken Lambert, CSI posted 06-21-2024 01:17 PM

  

Most of us have arrived at the realization that there is a troublesome and persistent shortage of skilled tradespeople in the USA. This has been the case I would say for at least a decade—and, generally, is not getting any better. The steady workers (carpenters, masons, plumbers, welders, etc.) that have held down these key jobs for 30+ years are soon retiring, as they have been in waves over the past several years.

And there are not enough 18- to 25-year-olds coming in and filling their boots.

Trouble is, the exact same thing can be said for the US manufacturing industry.

I read articles about this subject all the time and have spoken to several building product manufacturers, and the workforce shortage problem is the same, perhaps, even more so. The US in recent years has done a nice job of instigating onshoring and reshoring of manufacturing, but there are major concerns as to who will fill the EXISTING factories and plants—let alone new ones that are currently being constructed.

With all that said, there appears to be somewhat of a silver lining in the American building industry, and one that could help with work shortage issues, evidenced in the growth and potential partnership between construction and manufacturing via the continued interest and use of prefabrication and modular construction techniques. Many European countries are far ahead of the US in using prefabrication as a key means of building production and efficiency, so we have something to try to attain. 
But therein lies the rub.

Generally speaking, the same people who work on a construction site also can (and do) work in a manufacturing facility. But these individuals have to decide if they want to work in a plant or on a construction site—they can’t do both. (As an aside, I have done both, so I know a bit of what I say here.)
Robotics and automation are more common and relevant in manufacturing than on the typical construction site. These technological tools can help manufacturers become more efficient even with slightly inadequate crew sizes. Automation can and does help (in a factory, for example), but it has its own set of concerns and upfront dollar investments. Not all manufacturers are interested in the kinds of capital investments needed to automate or drastically improve their production or working conditions.

As we move forward, the AEC community needs to understand that it will be “fighting” with the US manufacturing sector for labor. This will continue to drive up the costs of trade labor, which may not be a bad thing. But this will then of course increase overall building project costs further.

What are the solutions to this issue? There needs to be an all-encompassing effort from the industry to develop and value labor and talent, and there also has to be more of a willingness from our current teens and young adults to look at and consider a career in construction.

Ken Lambert, CSI, is the Director of Structures and Corrosion-Free Environments at Cocoon. He can be reached at klambert@cocoon-inc.com.

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