- Although construction is on the rise, there is a noticeable shortage of workers across the board. Is the answer in grass roots efforts to recruit a new work force through education or in automating the process?
Construction outlays rose in September, up 0.3 percent led by government spending. Overall construction spending this year has been on an uptick running at a seasonally adjusted annual $1.22 billion rate according to the Commerce Department.
Despite facing serious headwinds, construction is up 9.5 percent for the year, mostly in single-family housing.
The demand for new construction comes as prices for lumber and materials have continued to rise. The Commerce Department recently announced that it is setting final tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber of 20.8 percent for most Canadian producers.
However, the biggest concern for the construction industry continues to be the question of finding enough workers. Construction workers departed the industry in the wake of the Great Recession, and many did not return when the housing market rebounded.
In the wake of housing destruction caused by hurricanes and wildfires, the competition for workers is even stronger. Nearly every state is wrestling with the questions of where the workers went and how to lure them back.
The education solution
A variety of schools and businesses around the country are taking on the job of construction education. On Cape Cod in Massachusetts, the Cape Cod Regional Technical High School has an extensive program working with local builders to provide training to teenagers.
It’s just one of many similar programs around the country that seeks to show students the value of a trade-based career path.
In Colorado, where housing is booming but there are 15,000 fewer construction workers than a decade ago, the Colorado Building Academy seeks to train younger workers, those in transition and anyone interested in construction work.
The school is funded by Denver-area homebuilders, and many of its programs are free for trainees. It plans to graduate 350 students in the first year with over a thousand planned for the following year.
In Tennessee, there were 19,000 fewer workers in the construction industry at the start of the summer compared to 2007. Contractors report turning down jobs because they are unable to supply workers.
A website, Go Build Tennessee has been set up to support and encourage interest in the trades.
In Arizona, where there is currently a shortage of approximately 10,000 workers, one Tucson contractor has created an in-house apprenticeship to offer workers not just a job but also training for the future.
The automation option
Some trend watchers say the construction worker shortage is one that can be solved by advances in robotics.
Modular homes built in factories and assembled on site can be less expensive and require fewer labor hours and conventional stick-built construction.
Automation is increasingly becoming part of the solution for home building, especially when it comes to affordable housing.
One company that focuses on excavation, Built Robotics, recently raised $15 million in Series A funding. Self-driving excavators, drone surveying and prefab construction — automation has the potential to streamline and refine the construction process.
In the United States, only a small number of homes are prefab, and there is great potential for expansion. A variety of startups are getting into the prefab and modular business and many cities are wrestling with zoning and building regulations to make room for these new upstarts.
The tiny home boom already raised questions with regard to existing zoning. In areas struck by disasters where there is a sudden and immediate need for housing, there may not be time to wait.
The need for workers isn’t going to go away anytime soon, but for construction and home building to increase, builders will need to find ways to entice more workers into the industry until technology can pick up the slack.
Deidre Woollard is the co-founder of Lion & Orb, a real estate public relations company. Follow her on Twitter @Deidre.