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Crucial Changes Called For in Construction Workforce Development

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Last Wednesday was a great day for reflection about the workforce issue, at least for me.  It began at a lunch gathering of Associated Builders and Contractors Past Presidents and the current executive committee to gather insight and input for the coming year’s planning session objectives, as requested by the ABC Greater Houston Chapter incoming chair Tim Ricketts.  As Tim asked the past presidents for recollection of significant issues, accomplishments, and struggles during their respective terms, the issues of workforce, craft training, and unions dominated the discussion.  Familiar themes of owner input and related issues, union difficulties, and economics were brought up.  For example, owners were paying a significant training contribution via the union wage and fringe benefits to contractors, but didn’t see the value in paying contractors or ABC to do training in a merit shop environment. 

Ultimately ABC and the Houston Business Roundtable would establish the Construction and Maintenance Education Foundation (CMEF) using owner allocated funds for craft certification, assessment, and training on industrial maintenance work.  Some 20 years later the model has evolved a bit, and now faces new challenges, among them the need to fill the void in commercial craft training, and maintain the owners’ level of commitment.  The now several decades-long struggle for an adequate craft workforce is ongoing in the face of demographic shifts and market swings.

The third and final leg of my day was an interview with KTRK ABC Channel 13’s Jeff Ehling concerning the skilled labor shortage in our area.  Jeff came by our office after talking with Jerry Nevlud, President of the Associated General Contractors Houston chapter.  Jeff seemed to be tuned in to the labor shortage, and was interested in our feedback concerning the impact of the shortage and what we could do to improve the situation.  Jerry’s and my work on the Construction Career Collaborative (C3), along with other commercial construction executives, pretty much guaranteed our responses would be consistent, and indeed they were.  While Jeff only used a couple of brief statements in his clip, Jerry talked of rising wages and competition for skilled labor, while I mentioned the rates paid by the oil industry ratcheting up the pressure, and the need for a vocational career path in high schools in lieu of a “college only” recommended plan, as mandated by our legislature.  My interview with Jeff put a cap on my day of workforce contemplation, and led me to write this blog, as it highlighted the whole issue in my mind.

Throughout the day, I heard people talking about a workforce problem, a conversation that has persisted for years.  Not enough people, not enough of the “right kind” of people, and no consistent training effort.  I heard many proposed solutions:  more high school recruiting, vocational tracks in secondary schools and in community colleges, owner-funded training, etc.  Not one of these problems, or these solutions, is new to this discussion.  In fact, it is maddening to hear our industry repeat this circular discussion every time we enter a period of economic prosperity and the resulting uptick in construction leads to manpower issues.

When are we, as contractors, going to stop our overzealous competing with each other, and actually fulfill a couple of words we hear in the Construction Career Collaborative mission?  These words are “COLLABORATIVE” and “SUSTAINABLE”.  If we really want to turn this workforce issue around, we need to work together (collaborate) to compete against other industries in the battle for skilled workers.  We need mount a consistent (sustained) effort, incorporating all the proposed solutions named above, or at least some effective combination we are willing to share.  C3 represents the best overall plan for the workforce issue I have seen in my career, which now spans 42 years.

If you are not involved in the C3 movement, then you are sustaining the status quo, and thus contributing to our demise.  I say we should stop talking and start doing.  To construction owners, general contractors, specialty contractors, or industry associations I say: get plugged into C3 and its multiple avenues for building success and change.  No more whining, JUST DO IT!

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