In 2021, the U.S. Congress passed a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. In this article, Rose Morrison explores how the construction labour shortage could pose a threat to the success of the bill as construction companies struggle to keep up with demand
How exactly does the infrastructure bill relate to the construction labour shortage, and what can be done to address the situation?
The demand for infrastructure
The 2021 infrastructure bill includes many important projects that aim to update and expand America’s roads, bridges, public spaces, public transportation, airports, waterways, and energy infrastructure. There are even initiatives to fund electric vehicle development and environmental remediation. The bill itself clearly has admirable goals, and if these goals were fulfilled, U.S. citizens would greatly benefit from it.
However, all of this new infrastructure needs to be built. Funding doesn’t mean the new structures will simply appear. It is important to remember that behind every new bridge, road, or edifice is a dedicated team of construction professionals.
The problem is that there aren’t enough of them. The construction industry was already facing a challenging labour shortage before the infrastructure bill passed. With so much new demand from the federal projects included in the bill, it will be even more difficult for the construction industry to keep up.
So, the construction industry and the infrastructure bill are at an impasse. Demand for construction work is high, but the supply of people available to perform those jobs is low.
This issue has been on the rise for years and arguably decades now. Boomers are retiring and younger generations have not moved into construction jobs to fill those vacancies. Of the 11.3 million Americans working in construction in 2021, nearly 2.5 million were over the age of 55. Barely 1 million were under the age of 25. The pandemic likely spurred many older construction workers to retire, as well.
Pressure from the housing market
Another major contributor to the strain on the construction industry is the housing market. The surge in demand for houses all over the U.S. over the past few years has created a serious need for new housing construction. This might sound like a good thing. After all, it creates no shortage of work for construction companies and even kept them busy during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic when other industries were struggling to stay afloat.
Unfortunately, the pandemic took a toll on construction in another way: supply shortages. Construction companies have been struggling to get the supplies and materials they need to get their projects completed. Even if they order the supplies and have the money to pay for them, they might not be available or delivered for weeks or months.
The impact of the DIY boom
Professional construction companies aren’t the only ones in need of these supplies, either. The COVID-19 pandemic sparked a historic surge in DIY home improvement and renovation projects all over the country. People are trying their hand at amateur construction on all sorts of projects, from exterior upgrades like a new porch to interior remodels like a new kitchen.
On one hand, the booming DIY community is helping the construction industry by taking some weight off already backed-up construction companies. If a family can take care of building their own new patio, they save money and that’s one less project local construction companies have to worry about.
Nonetheless, the strain on construction companies due to the housing market is still quite serious. The demand for housing construction has put construction companies in a position where they are already backlogged on projects underway and now face even more new projects from the infrastructure bill, all while they can’t get the supplies or personnel they need.
Supply shortages may simply need to run their course until supply chains reach equilibrium again. There may be something that the construction industry can do to address the labor shortage, though.
Addressing the labour shortage
There are a few factors influencing the labour shortage in the construction industry. Arguably the largest one is the lack of young people choosing to pursue careers in construction. Construction companies and leaders may be able to take action to shift the perception of construction careers among young people.
Additionally, there are other demographics worth tapping into and supportive training programs may help attract even more new people to the industry.
Outreach to new demographics
The construction industry may be missing a golden opportunity. According to the U.S. Department of Labour, only 9% of construction employees are women. This is one of the smallest percentages of women in any industry in the workforce. Women are by no means less capable or qualified than men for construction careers, though.
In fact, studies have found that nearly half of the top 100 contracting companies have women in executive positions. Throughout the entire workforce, gender-diverse companies were found to be both more profitable and higher-performing than less diverse competitors. If construction companies make an effort to be more welcoming and supportive of potential female employees, they may be able to fill some much-needed roles more quickly.
There are all sorts of ways that construction companies can attract women to roles in the industry. Training and mentorship are highly valuable options, though. There may even be local training programs specifically for women that construction companies can hire from. A great example is Nontraditional Employment for Women (NEW) in New York City, which trains women for careers in the skilled trades.
An opportunity to shift perceptions among Gen Z
It is clear that young people are not choosing to pursue careers in construction in the same numbers that older generations did. The question is why.
The answer has to do with a deep cultural shift over recent years that has convinced young people that a four-year degree is the only path to success. To pursue anything else is seen as a “downgrade.” Competition at the nation’s most prestigious universities has become more heated than ever before.
However, there are opportunities today for the construction industry to appeal to young people and use concerns like student debt to promote the benefits that can come with a career in construction. The COVID-19 pandemic already laid the groundwork for a potential new wave of trades professionals.
Surveys showed that the percentage of Generation Z considering a four-year degree dropped by 23% between May 2020 and September 2021. In the same survey, more young people expressed interest in “nontraditional” employment, including the skilled trades.
Gen Z is beginning to question the value of taking on tens of thousands of dollars in student debt. They also recognize the rising tide of the skills-based economy, where they can make high incomes in careers like carpentry, electrical, welding, and other trades.
However, construction companies need to extend a bridge to truly sway Gen Z and convince them to give construction a try.
Internships, apprenticeships, and training
Perhaps the most effective way to bring Gen Z into the construction community is through paid training programs like apprenticeships. This serves a dual purpose: offering young people a chance to build career skills while also training the new skilled workers the construction industry desperately needs.
Construction companies can lead hands-on camps, classroom training programs, and even after-school internships to show high school students in their area the value of an exciting career in construction.
The idea of going into a job paying over $20 an hour straight out of high school is definitely an attractive alternative to thousands of dollars in student loans. It is important for construction leaders and educators to remember the longer term, as well. Young people today are expected to think far into the future about their careers, so show them the path for growth in the industry as well as the entry point.
The 2021 infrastructure bill may even help encourage young people to consider construction careers since it has significant environmental and sustainability initiatives, which Gen Z has demonstrated significant interest in.
Can the construction industry adapt?
Faced with an infrastructure bill that will massively increase demand, the construction industry has no choice but to adapt in order to grow. The current declining trajectory of the construction workforce is simply not sustainable given the amount of projects needed in the United States.
Industry leaders can bring new hires into the industry by appealing to the untapped potential of women in the skilled trades as well as Gen Z, who may be more likely to consider careers in construction than their Millennial predecessors.
Attracting these new groups to careers in construction will require a shift in the perception of the industry overall and a bit of legwork from current industry professionals to provide training and resources. With the right outreach and a passion for the industry, though, construction leaders can begin to build a new generation of skilled workers ready to take on the exciting new projects laid out by the 2021 infrastructure bill.
Rose Morrison is a construction writer with a passion for sustainable building and innovative construction technologies.