By Rory San Miguel - CEO and Co-Founder, Propeller Aero
Republished from Construction Executive, November 30, a publication of Associated Builders and Contractors. Copyright 2021. All rights reserved.
The construction sector is knee-deep in a crisis. Like all industries, it has faced an acute labor shortage during the pandemic. There simply aren’t enough workers available to get roads built, buildings repaired and infrastructure refreshed.
But while the pandemic may have turned a spotlight on the issue, the truth is the industry has been in a skilled labor drought for decades. According to Pew Research, STEM degrees grew by 68% from 2010 to 2018 alone, but the construction sector has not seen the proportional influx of skilled workers that today’s ambitious engineering and design feats demand. Now, as the bipartisan infrastructure bill sits poised to inject serious capital into the sector, fueling a wealth of new projects and contracts, companies that aren’t able to attract skilled workers to execute these projects may lose out.
STEM has been one of the fastest-growing fields in the recent decades. Look at China’s 102 mile-long Danyang-Kunshan Grand Bridge, or the gravity-defying construction of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, and the evidence of our growth in technology and engineering is not hard to find. Why then, have top graduates in these fields not flocked to construction with the same fervor as they have to tech?
Unfortunately, long-held stereotypes about the space often play a role. Construction has historically been thought of as a low-tech, manual labor field, requiring less technical skills—all which is far from the truth. Lack of awareness about the many skilled roles in construction, including what their day-to-day work looks like, how much time they spend in an office versus in the field, pay rates, and more, lead many to make assumptions, and often the wrong ones. A BLS study showed that, on average, civil engineers made over $85,000 a year in 2020, which is approximately 47% higher than the average sales job.
Many of today’s brightest STEM minds can be found in the halls of universities and are soon to graduate and look for the field that will guide their career. While they may admire the incredible construction projects that often gain global attention, they are on the hunt for a specific kind of employer. They value a workplace that cares about its contribution to larger issues like the climate movement, that is employee-first, and flexible with things like vacation time or maternal and paternal leave. And for those enamored with technology, they’re looking to work on the cutting edge.
Flying drones for 3D mapping, getting a virtual reality look at a site survey and using brick-laying robots are among the innovations that get them excited about the field. These technologies are not only innovative, they allow workers to focus on the most important elements of the project and stay safer while reducing time spent on repetitive or arduous tasks. As an example, Hensel Phelps deployed drones on their Daniel K. Inouye Airport worksite in Honolulu, allowing them to take their workers out of hazardous conditions and get a survey-accurate view of the site everyday. This technology created a way for employees to communicate better, perform more efficiently and stay out of harm's way.
At the heart of the construction industry are the people who dedicate themselves to putting in the hard work it takes to complete projects (and who take pride in their work, too). Coming back from the current labor shortage is going to take effort on the part of construction companies that must promote themselves as innovative and modern workplaces.
A vibrant and eager group of young potential workers are looking to bring their talents to this industry and will seek out places that are using new tech innovations and how they will impact the daily life of their employees. The construction industry has a prime opportunity to capitalize on tech to modernize their workforce and help alleviate the ongoing labor shortage.