When the builder Frank L. Blum Construction, based in Winston-Salem, N.C., was getting started in the 1920s, the company’s assets included an automobile, two concrete mixers, and a team of mules. One assumes the animals were paid in food.
Today, Blum’s talent gets considerably more coddling. In recent years, the company has doubled down on its employee training program, fattened its benefit package, and started a mentoring program that has met at a bowling alley and a Dave & Buster’s arcade. The company has also invited clients, including a local hospital and a park for which it's building a public art installation, to talk to employees about why construction work matters.
Those initiatives are an attempt by Blum's president, Mike Lancaster, to answer a question that resonates across the industry: Faced with an aging workforce, how can construction companies attract the young workers they need for the ongoing expansion?
“The old days of hiring someone and sticking them on the job site and saying, ‘Go learn construction,’ that’s gone,” said Lancaster. “We have to show new talent that we will develop you, appreciate you, and engage you.”
The construction industry shed about 2.3 million jobs, or 29 percent of its workforce, from the beginning of 2007 through the end of 2010. It regained close to 900,000 workers through January of this year but has been slower to bring back workers aged 19 to 24, according to an October analysis by the U.S. Census Bureau.
That may be because employers prefer to bring back more experienced hands before tapping untried workers. But many in the industry say that employers haven't convinced the millennial generation of the appeal of construction jobs and that they need new talent pipelines to recruit workers who would, in past decades, have been funneled into construction by vocational schools or union apprenticeship programs.
Seventy-nine percent of companies are having trouble filling positions for hourly workers—especially carpenters, sheet metal installers, and concrete workers—according to a September survey by the Associated General Contractors of America. The need is less pronounced for the types of salaried workers Lancaster is seeking to recruit, though 55 percent of companies in the AGC poll said they were struggling to hire project managers and supervisors.
“It’s absolutely a challenge that the construction industry is going to have to face,” said Robert Dietz, an economist for the National Association of Home Builders. “Scarcity of labor has been a top challenge this year, and it’s not going away next year.”
Present-day labor shortages and concerns about the aging workforce have led employers and trade groups to launch new programs to train workers, as well as marketing efforts to persuade young workers that they can build careers in construction. Tecta America, a commercial roofing firm in Rosemont, Ill., with 2,800 workers, is seeking certification from state labor departments across the U.S. for a new three-year apprenticeship program for field workers, and the company has a separate program to teach future supervisors skills such as finance and computer skills. Meanwhile, Tecta America has been promoting itself to students as a place where employees can work on environmentally sustainable projects such as green roofs. “We’re not just going into high schools but junior high,” said Nicole Eisenhardt, a human resource manager for the company.
Trade groups, meanwhile, have marshaled resources in support of broader-based efforts. In 2013, the Foundation of the Wall & Ceiling Industry, a nonprofit in Falls Church, Va., published a report for its members that uses such phrases as "coddled" and "me-first" to describe young workers. The report recommended that hirers engage in social media recruiting and highlight the high-tech aspects of construction trades.
In 2010, AGC helped launch Go Build Alabama, a statewide marketing campaign arguing that construction offered better earning potential than the average American job and was accessible without expensive college degrees. The campaign, which featured reality TV host Mike Rowe speaking such catch phrases as "not all knowledge comes from college," was later replicated in Georgia. A third Go Build program got support from the Tennessee state legislature this year, although that program will likely tap a country music star as spokesman, according to Bill Young, executive vice president of the state's AGC chapter.
How effective these campaigns will be remains an open question. Go Build Alabama helped boost applications to apprenticeship programs by 73 percent, according to the organization. Other programs may take longer to bear fruit. In April, the Home Builders Institute, the training arm of the NAHB, launched a program to train military personnel in construction trades to help them move back into the civilian world. The program's first cohort, stationed at the U.S. Army's Ft. Stewart, Ga., base, are building tiny houses for a nearby homeless population, said Dennis Torbett, a senior vice president at HBI. The program ticks some boxes for the pop-science of millennial recruiting but is years away from funneling a meaningful number of workers into the industry.
Construction, meanwhile, is expected to add jobs at the second-fastest rate among U.S. industries, after health care, according to estimates published last week by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If the marketing strategies fail, employers may have to take another, perhaps more obvious tack to meet the labor shortage, now and in the future. "Anecdotally, some builders are reporting that wages are going to have to rise," said Dietz.