Labor Shortage in Construction Will Affect America’s Growth

General contractor group, AGC, provides the results of a construction labor survey.

Construction workers are missing all over the country, says the AGC after a recent survey of construction firms.

Construction workers are missing all over the country, says the AGC after a recent survey of construction firms.

The United States is facing a critical shortage of construction workers—a shortage so severe that it will impact the growth of our economy, says the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) after its recent survey of 2,200 respondents. Among those surveyed, 80 percent of construction firms reported experiencing a hard time filling positions, both hourly and salaried (those in the office, estimators, foremen and managers).

“All regions of the US are affected by severe craft worker shortages,” says the AGC. Among contractors in the West and South, 83 percent reported having a hard time filling hourly craft positions—a figure that’s almost identical to the 81 percent rate reported in the Midwest and 75 percent rate reported in the Northeast.

Autodesk, which along with Bentley and Trimble, specialize in software for AEC, are quick to point out that construction is getting more technical and using more technology will not only provide a competitive edge, but also make up for the labor shortage. A tech-savvy company can precisely model a building or an infrastructure project down to doorknobs, and that level of planning and detail will help to prevent the rampant waste (near 30 percent the cost of a project, according to Autodesk) on a construction site.

Allison Scott, Autodesk

“Firms can innovate themselves into a greater efficiency,” says Allison Scott, head of construction integrated marketing at Autodesk. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)

Scott added that “29 percent of firms report they are investing in technology to supplement worker duties. One-fourth of firms report they are using cutting-edge solutions, including drones, robots and 3D printers. Meanwhile, 23 percent of firms report they are taking steps to improve jobsite performance by relying on lean construction techniques, using tools like BIM and doing more off-site prefabrication.”

Bigger construction firms are the first and most likely to make use of technology, as has been demonstrated by a visit to AECOM, which is large enough to have IT staff, CAD managers and operators.

But it’s not enough. We still need more boots on the ground, says AGC.

Only in America

Even a nonscientific survey of building lots and construction sites around California over the years reveals that everyone on the roof, landscaping, pounding nails into framing, more are almost entirely Latino. Many more of them, I’m sure, could be found among those amassed at our southern border, held back from entering the country. Leading us to wonder: Is this a problem of our own making? Are the U.S.limits on immigration and the resulting lack of foreign workers causing at least some of the aforementioned labor shortage in construction?

Also, it only takes a visit to almost any major Asian city, where swarms of workers on bamboo scaffolding are able to grow high-rise structures seemingly overnight by several stories, to realize that the labor shortage is local rather than global. Entire shanty villages can be seen below around Indian construction sites, populated by a nomadic migrant community of workers. “They come from Bihar. It is a very poor state, sir.”

The overwhelming number of construction workers employed in the Gulf States are from Asia. (Image courtesy of

The overwhelming number of construction workers employed in the Gulf States are from Asia. (Image courtesy of

Construction in many Arab states is almost completely dominated by what has turned into a permanent workforce of foreign labor, referred to as “guest workers,” who are mostly from Asian countries. While the workers themselves may cycle through their “host” countries, the collective population remains constant, sizeable and limited to a second-class citizenship.

Clearly, the labor shortage is a local shortage, not a global one.

The AGC shares none of the xenophobic and anti-immigration sentiments of the current U.S. White House—at least as it pertains to construction workers.

“We need foreign workers,” says the AGC. Can we please let them in?

We’ll Pay You More

Firms are appreciating their current workers more. “We’ve gone from ‘You’re lucky to have a job’ to ‘We really appreciate you working for us.’” Recruitment has been made easier with better wages, though it is not clear how much more.

The pitch to enter construction is to start as early as high school. “Guidance counselors have given kids a choice. An office worker in a suit or a dirty-looking guy in a factory. This stigma applies to construction as well. But those who are selling construction to the youth point out that college is not for everyone. You can get to work without a crippling debt. And when you are done working, you can spend the rest of the day with your family.

Then There’s Drugs?

The opioid crisis is also having an effect, says the AGC, in a bit of a surprise. Is opioid abuse decimating the labor ranks? The answer is a bit complicated and the basis of the claim is admittedly anecdotal (it was not part of the AGC survey) and has more to do with the use of all illegal drugs, not just opioids.

Opioid abuse hits the construction industry harder than the rest of the population. According to a Midwest Economic Policy Institute study, construction workers have an injury rate that is 77 percent higher than the national average. Construction workers had 71,730 nonfatal injuries in 2013, according to the National Safety council records. Back injuries were the most common, with hand injuries next. It was uncommon for doctors to prescribe opioids for these injuries, leading many to addiction and some to death by overdose. A Massachusetts study found that 26 percent of all opioid deaths between 2011 and 2015 were in the construction and extraction (mining) industry—a death rate 6 times that of all workers in the state.

It turns out that after America’s longstanding tough-against-crime stance by those running for office, along with arrests, convictions and prison terms in large numbers, have left much fewer “eligible” workers. Construction companies give drug tests and applicants fail them. Marijuana use, while legal in several states, is still a federal crime. AGC blames insurance companies. “They won’t let us hire anyone who fails a drug tests.” And 25 percent to 40 percent of applicants do fail.

It’s a Man’s World. Still.

The biggest untapped labor pool in the U.S. is women, said one speaker.

The AGC admits that construction has not been the ideal work environment for women and acknowledges the continued perception that it may not be the most welcoming of women in the workplace. Problems include harassment, unequal pay, a lack of maternity and family leave policies—and even a shortage of safety equipment that can accommodate “different body types.” This all makes for a trade that has been unwelcoming,
even hostile and dangerous to women, and a forbidding endeavor for half of the population.

Generations of Americans have been conditioned to think of construction as the place for the strong of back and weak of mind—what to do if you can’t get into college—giving it a stigma that has led to less and less youth entering the trade.

If we can do it, so can you. Women in Construction group at AU2018 in Las Vegas.

If we can do it, so can you. Women in Construction group at Autodesk University 2018 in Las Vegas.

Autodesk University had a presentation by Women in Construction, with several speakers sharing how they had fared in the trade and willing to give advice to those women considering the industry.