The Timesheets Don’t Lie. Construction Is Booming. But Can It Last?

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It’s a great time to be looking for work in construction.

U.S. construction spending hit the $1.14 trillion mark in January—the highest it’s been since 2008—and figures released this month show that the number of people employed in the industry is also at an eight-year high; at almost 6.7 million workers.

The growth can also be seen in the recent jump in the number of construction employees using TSheets for time tracking. Last month alone, construction firms using TSheets logged an incredible 6.5 million hours on the job site—an increase of more than a million hours on the month before—and added more than 4,000 users to their accounts. In just one month!

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All of which is great news. We love to see employees working hard.

And playing hard.

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But there are concerns that the industry will struggle to maintain this growth because of a serious shortage of skills and labor.

If that’s true, what can construction firms do about it?


Where did all the construction workers go?

At first, talk of a skills and labor shortage in construction seems puzzling.

“Compared with the same month a year ago, the industry is adding workers at more than double the rate of the overall economy,” says Ken Simonson from the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC).

And when you look at the absolute rate of job growth, this seems to be in good shape too, with the March 2016 employment figure 4.7% higher than it was in March 2015. It all adds up—after all, we’ve now emerged from what many economists describe as the most severe economic crunch since the Great Depression of the 1930s, so there should be thousands of willing workers lining up for the rebound.

Only, there aren’t.

According to the vice president for tax and market analysis at the National Association of Home Builders, Robert Dietz, the industry shed 1.5 million jobs in the recession that followed the financial crash of 2007, and there are now officially more than a quarter of a million unemployed construction workers in the U.S.

But many appear to have quit the industry for good, which is putting pressure on employers. Research by the AGC published in September 2015 found that 86 percent of construction firms are having difficulty filling positions.

“As labor shortages grow more severe, competition for workers is heating up,” says Stephen Sandherr from the AGC, adding, “Few firms across the country have been immune from growing labor shortages in the construction industry.”

Sandherr then points to the other reason it’s becoming harder to fill vacancies.

“The sad fact is too few students are being exposed to construction careers or provided with the basic skills needed to prepare for such a career path.”


Time to bring the sexy back

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As baby boomers retire and others leave the industry, ramping up education programs could provide one solution to the skills and labor shortage (and there’s evidence that this is already happening in some areas) but the impact may not be as immediate, or widespread, as the industry needs.

Students have got to want to enroll in these programs in the first place, and if they have already graduated, persuaded to retrain for a profession they never considered before. Attracting them will take a combination of substance and marketing.

The “substance” comes from what the industry can offer people to draw them in, and the starting point here is for construction firms to develop a great team culture that enables talent to attract more talent (something TSheets also works hard on). Hughes Marino was recently recognized for this when it finished second on Entrepreneur’s list of the 25 Best Small-Company Cultures in 2015, with a CultureIQ score of 98.31 out of 100. In a phrase close to TSheets’ heart, they say on the careers page of their website, “We Love Our People.”

Setting out an attractive career path for young people in construction could give the industry a quick win in the battle against a skills and labor shortage because so few industries can genuinely offer one these days. Great benefits, good opportunities for progression, and real job security could all draw in students who wouldn’t otherwise have given the industry a second look. A regular on Fortune’s list of the 100 Best Companies To Work For is employee-owned PCL Construction, which finished in 60th place this year on the strength of its benefits package and its relentless focus on staff safety and wellbeing.

By following their example, construction companies across the U.S. can sell themselves as a great place to build a rewarding career. But still, the perception persists that the industry is more about high-vis vests than high flyers and the answer to this could come from better marketing. It’s time to bring the sexy back.

Not convinced that construction can be sexy?

Just look at all the cool toys you get on a construction site these days—not your old school excavators and loaders but next-level tech that is changing the face of the industry. From drones and mobile apps to robots and 3D printers, cutting-edge technology is transforming the construction site into something that many retired baby boomers would no longer recognize. And it could attract a whole new generation into the profession, as long as the industry recognizes the marketing potential.

The disruption of new technology could prove, once again, to be a regenerative force—and in construction, that’s exactly what’s needed.