To Attract Workforce, Industry Thinking Must Shift, say Building, Construction and Design Experts

Salt Lake City—Everywhere you look in the valley, construction projects are going up. From the airport to the tech highway, business is booming. But while, for many, now is a great time to build, the construction industry continues to grapple with a workforce shortage that is stymieing its growth—and keeping many companies from taking as much work as they otherwise could have.

This issue, and many others, were discussed during the annual Utah Business Building, Construction and Design roundtable held at Holland and Hart’s downtown Salt Lake City offices Monday afternoon. Twenty construction industry experts and executives met to discuss the state of the industry, workforce development, and other topics. The ongoing workforce shortage was top of mind for many.

“I feel like I’m repeating myself all the time because I’m talking about it constantly. It’s a major focus of ours, and it needs to be as an industry,” said Troy Gregory, president of Hunt Electric, Inc. His company has taken initiative to create a workforce development team and create apprenticeships to reach high school and college-age students looking for alternative careers—and to educate those who may not realize what a career in building and construction could give them.

Construction is dealing with an aging workforce—the average age of an electrician, said Gregory, is 55—and is still trying to fill in the gaps of all those who left the industry during the Great Recession. Rob Moore, CEO of Big-D Construction, said that Utah’s construction industry had 100,000 workers before the downturn and 60,000 workers after, and currently have stagnated around 80-85,000 workers.

“I think we’re about 30 percent understaffed in Utah. I can think of projects that we could use about 30 percent more people,” said Moore, who added that construction needs to do a better job of luring people back into construction professions by “getting the message out that we pay 5 percent higher than any other market segment there is.”

But wages alone may not be the siren song they were in the past. Jonathan Campbell, VP of Sales for Wheeler Machinery, related a story where he asked his then-high-school-age brother what really appealed to him in a job—and when picking between a 401k, help with a mortgage, earning good wages, etc., the brother replied being able to take plenty of time off was his most desired benefit. And that shift in priorities was echoed when Campbell followed up with current employees.

“As we’ve polled our employees, we’ve found wages don’t have the pull they used to. PTO is the number one priority of our employees right now over pay,” he said. “As we look to attract younger people to our industry, we have to approach it differently. What worked 10-20 years ago doesn’t work now. There aren’t the same priorities that past generations had. …If we keep focusing on what worked in the past, we won’t get new people in our industry.”

It creates something of a catch-22 for construction companies. Finding more PTO for employees is strapped by the fact that the workforce is too lean and projects are plentiful, so the same workers have to pick up the slack.

“[Millennials] don’t want to work weekends. But we don’t have enough staff to run shifts. It’s very challenging,” said Mike Kurz, president at Staker Parson.

Changing fundamental attitudes about—and within—the construction industry is a place to start, said Matt Rich, vice president of Jacobsen Construction. Why not reach out to women? Why not educate those passionate about STEM about the technological aspects in construction?

“We can’t keep doing the same things we’re doing with little tweaks,” said Rich. “We can’t change things just a little bit. These are dramatic changes. We need to access [more] information—how often do we talk to high school students? [Ask] ‘what do you want? What’s interesting to you as a career?’ [We need] fundamental shifts of the people we’re talking to, the men versus the women. Can you imagine 20 years ago saying that we offer more PTO than anyone? Who takes vacation 20 years ago? That’s a fundamental shift in not just offering it but allowing it and changing how people perceive it. Now, that’s who we are. That’s what our industry is.”

Rich Thorn, president and CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Utah moderated the discussion. Read the full conversation in the February issue of Utah Business.