Much has been made about the skills shortage within the construction industry. In the latest JBKnowledge Construction Technology Report, the three most requested skills for general contract hires are field experience, technological savvy and BIM knowledge. The problem is, not only are new hires lacking in these areas, there are fewer and fewer young people going into the construction industry in the first place. How bad has it gotten? According to Builder Magazine, a 2017 study showed that while 74% of young adults knew which career field they wanted to enter, only 3% of those surveyed wanted to go into construction.
So, how can we as an industry attract new hires for the trades? How can we get the college grads to become the engineers of tomorrow? Why aren’t we getting the new talent?
Is It the Money?
Let’s start with the elephant in the room: money. The aforementioned study of 18- to 25-year-olds revealed that 32% of those surveyed believed that construction work “is difficult.” In addition, a reported 48% wanted a job “less physically demanding.” When you type “Millennials are” into a Google search, you often find the word “lazy” popping up in your search bar. But according to Time Magazine as of 2015, adults between the ages of 18-34 now make up 1 in 3 American workers. So the fact of the matter is they will make up a significant part of the workforce in the years ahead. Preconceived notions aside, it’s better to understand their motivations and learn to work with them than to write them off. After all, they represent the future of industry.
So back to the money. According to a report on PayScale.com, the median entry-level construction laborer salary is $13.93 an hour. This is higher than all minimum wage rates per state for 2018, although only slightly higher than 13 of the states, and virtually the same as many West Coast and East Coast major cities. If millennials do indeed believe construction is “difficult” and “physically demanding,” it’s not surprising why they might gravitate to other industries that pay the same or a higher wage. It’s not that they aren’t motivated, they’ve just seen the previous generation being forced to work more than one job to make ends meet. Therefore, millennials either must love and believe in what they’re doing, or they need to be making enough money to justify the work. They are a byproduct of the “work smarter not harder” school of thought, which can indeed cripple the idea of more physically demanding work for less pay than non-physically demanding work. As of 2016, the “living wage” or “what it takes to survive with a family of four” is $15.12, not much higher than the entry-level labor wage. Let’s look at the college grad engineers while we are at it. Glassdoor.com cites the average base pay of a construction project engineer at $45,607, while video game engineers make an average base pay of $60,896 per year. If saddled with sizable school loans, which career looks more desirable?
Before we say, “construction just doesn’t pay well enough to attract young talent,” let’s be realists. First, profit margins across the industry have only begun to rebound from the horrible 2008 recession, so there isn’t exactly a surplus of extra cash laying around to pay new talent more. Second, many new workers are also unskilled workers, especially on the craft side, and it’s likely that there are a variety of seasoned workers who deserve a financial promotion before it can be spent on lesser developed talent who may not be in the business for the long haul. The other, less publicized, factor is that construction has a higher chance of growth by position than in many other industries, meaning positions may pay low initially, but the chances for promotion, overtime and incentives offer great potential. This potential is echoed by a recent Fox Business post. In it, Stephen Mulva, director of the Construction Industry Institute (CII) says, “The general population doesn’t know how rewarding and profitable [construction jobs can be]. Six-figure salaries are not uncommon.” Steve Green, VP of the National Center for Construction Education and Research concurs. “I think all craft professionals are in the mid to upper five-figures, and once you add in per diem, and bonuses and incentives, it is not uncommon that we have workers making six figures.”
Recruiting Overhaul and the Value of Partnerships
While there are fewer and fewer young people getting involved in construction, we still need to focus on those who actually are interested in a long-term career. Between the employee shortage and the competition for jobs, these factors have made recruitment a top priority among firms. To attract new talent in today’s market, firms need to be extremely aggressive in going out and finding the talent as opposed to hoping it comes to them.
One of the ways firms are succeeding is by partnering up with academic institutions. A great example of this is the way Barton Malow has worked with Purdue University’s Construction Engineering and Management (CEM) school to mine and refine talent. First, Barton Malow has representation on the program’s advisory committee, which allows the firm to offer industry perspectives that ensure real-world application to what is being taught within the school. This extends to alumni who return to speak to students and offer advice on the latest technology being used in the field, so the school can keep labs updated with the right software. In turn, the school is better equipped to help students, and students are better prepared to enter the evolving job market. “Several years ago, in construction management, a new hire would take two years to figure out the processes to be productive on the job. Now, we’re down to about a month,” says Clark Cory, associate professor of computer graphics technology at Purdue.
Returning alumni have turned students onto the latest jobsite technology such as Bluebeam Revu, a PDF creation, editing, markup and real-time collaboration solution that 92% of US contractors use. “It evolves the curriculum almost yearly,” says Cory of working with the alumni. The CEM program at Purdue also involves a three-internship graduate requirement, giving companies and students the chance to interact before students graduate and formally enter the job market. This creates a direct talent pipeline, which benefits everyone involved. “We’ve been very successful over the past 30 years with internship placement. But, more exciting is that over our nearly 40 years of existence, we’ve had 100% job placement,” says Brandon Fulk, Purdue’s Construction Engineering and Management director of internships.
Partnering with schools is a functional and scalable solution for companies to go out and recruit talent in their area. Rocky Mountain-based general contractor Mortenson is a great example. After donating money to Colorado State University in 2013 to build the Center for Virtual Design and Construction (a computer lab at the Department of Construction Management), the company now has a BIM Boot Camp for students at CSU’s Construction Management School. The boot camp introduces the critical skills in software utilization, virtual design and construction necessary to prepare graduates for the field. “We care about the industry, we’re trying to give back,” explains Chris Boal, head of the VDC department at Mortenson’s Denver office. “CSU giving us an opportunity to be a part of that space is a big deal.”
Unorthodox partnerships work as well—just ask Lucas Richmond, senior media studio manager for Gilbane Building Company. Richmond described his process at BD+C’s Accelerate Live! Conference in Chicago in 2017. “We’re in a dawn of a new age in how we work in construction with technology,” says Richmond. “We’re actually hiring video game majors. They come out of school innovating; they’re already thinking outside the box.” The traditional approach to rendering can be slow when waiting for a render farm to animate project designs. “We probably save 90% of our time rendering inhouse on gaming engines with our video game majors.” The firm also has more control being able to examine and redefine the designs as the inhouse process takes shape. “The variety of designs really brings in these future-thinking employees who are already anticipating building different environments digitally, so they can adapt that thinking to our different projects,” says Richmond. “If you do hire video game majors, just make sure you have plenty of Mountain Dew and tacos.”
Likewise, tech companies that recognize the needs of the industry are following suit to donate seats and scholarships to schools, unions and students alike. “We have seen how receptive the trades have been in embracing our technology and remain dedicated to partnering with skilled trade workers on a long-term basis,” says Emily Heppard, Bluebeam academic program manager. The firm also sponsors events like AECX, which brings together the latest technology and the industry’s young talent to share a weekend’s worth of innovations and guest speakers from the industry.
We can discuss a lack of talent, a lack of resources, a skills gap, and blame our low entry employment numbers on “millennials”—or we can work with current employment market to continue moving forward. The fact of the matter is that we all need be involved—general contractors, schools, tech companies, you name it. We have to revitalize our industry and take it to the younger generation. We have to confront their preconceived notions about the industry and show them how rewarding a career in construction can be. There are so many different jobs within our industry and there will continue to be more as we grow and innovate. It will cost us some money and it will take some time, but if we can work together, we can build the next generation of AEC. We are builders, after all.