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Filling the Construction Pipeline: How the Skills Gap Impacts New Projects

Allison McKenzie

The United States has a massive skilled labor shortage. This shortage is often referred to as the skills gap, referencing the difference between the number of people in the workforce with a specific skill set and the number of workers needed. It’s most severe in trade sectors like construction and manufacturing. As a result, we desperately need more skilled tradespeople such as masons, carpenters and welders.

As an architecture firm, SHP is directly impacted by the lack of skilled labor, but the skills gap affects more than a few industries—it’s a drag on the economy. A shortage of qualified employees can slow business growth and impact the pace of development, both of which affect the economy at large.

While many people have heard of the skills gap, few truly understand the extent of how it can impact a construction project. Any company looking to build a new development is going to be faced with complications related to the labor shortage.

Impact on Architecture and Construction

The lack of construction workers impacts everything from quality to budget and timeline. It’s not uncommon to struggle finding the right construction workers for specific projects. We’ve even changed a project’s design because of a labor shortage. For example, a school may initially be interested in a design using masonry, but if there aren’t enough masons available, they may choose another building system, like pre-cast concrete.

Even if we’re able to find enough masons for the project, the price may not be realistic for the client because the lack of skilled tradespeople increases the price of available labor. As a result, it’s difficult to accurately predict construction costs until the project is bid out because the cost is dependent on worker availability. This has the potential to impact design if bids come back higher than expected and changes need to be made to accommodate the shift in budget. Similarly, timelines may adjust depending on workforce availability.

In the Tech Era, Construction Workers Still Needed

Even though technology is becoming more prevalent across industries, including construction, many of these positions aren’t going away. While future technology may complete a majority of the physical construction work, technology won’t be replacing trade workers and filling the skills gap. There are skills that can’t be replicated by machines—future tradespeople will most likely focus more on work requiring decision making, experience and finesse.

Encouraging people to enter skilled trades is more important now than ever as the number of tradespeople continues to decrease. And it’s predicted to get worse—in 2012, over half of skilled workers were over the age of 45. As these professionals age out of the workforce, the labor shortage could increase significantly if new, younger workers aren’t entering to replace them.

Filling the Construction Pipeline

Companies, educational institutions and individuals need to work together to bring more skilled tradespeople into the workforce. Companies can help fund and promote programs. High schools and colleges can provide vocational training to students. But those efforts won’t be as effective if we cannot end the stigma around trades. Part of the responsibility for increasing the number of skilled workers lies with individuals—teachers, administrators, family and friends—to help eliminate the negativity around vocational training.

The stigma associated with trade work is unfounded. Many construction, manufacturing and other trade sector positions provide good wages, with some professionals making more money at the beginning of their career than many of their peers with four-year degrees.

Vocational training should be provided as a valid option to young people considering their future careers. Education is not one-size-fits all, so the same four-year college path is not the best option for every student. Vocational training and professional development opportunities should be available for people of all ages to pursue their interests and receive the education that is best for them. The future of many of our industries, development and economy depend on it.

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