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A TIME TO DECLARE WAR ON LABOR SHORTAGES

BUILDER

Some building business leaders are taking action–locally and nationally–to address the skilled workforce challenge. More need to to the same.


The cost of housing’s labor shortages is going up.

There’s no reason not to expect the price tag to do anything other than get higher.

Builders normally rank land–access to building lots–as their biggest source of anxiety, and why not? It’s scarce. It’s expensive. It comes with rules that suck time and talent to deal with.

They’re used to those challenges and that source of worry, as well as the longstanding issue of securing capital to buy and develop those lots, and to finance construction. What they’re not used to in the past couple of business and housing cycles anyway, is this post Great Recession challenge: a lack of human resources to do jobs that require skills for a predictable rate that maps to a profitable margin on a finished project.

An inability to mobilize a sufficiently large force of such skilled workers wasn’t high on many peoples’ list of wicked problems coming out of the downturn. That kind of scarcity was not a big red flag until production started to pick up in 2013 or so, and plants started rebooting, and materials started trucking to sites, and the purchasing directors at some of the bigger companies realized that the armies of workers who’d been on all the sites less than a decade earlier were not going to come back with the flip of a switch.

Epic disruption in an already attenuated national skilled workforce occurs as apocalyptic storms bring large mapped areas and the millions of lives within those regions to their knees. The question for housing’s business leaders is whether this latest series of convulsive climate-related events simply worsens an already chronic challenge around skilled labor, or becomes a lever for opportunity to change.

The cost of not being able to secure skilled tradespeople committed to quality work for a price that will pencil plays out in countless ways. It’s projects that come in over budget. It’s work that needs to be redone, because it’s not done skillfully in the first place. It’s lost sales, because buyers can’t wait for a delivery that’s either unreasonably distant or unpredictable. It’s jobs that don’t get started, and ones that don’t get finished when they’re supposed to.

It’s a known issue, and every strategic leader at every company knows that it’s one that’s not going to take care of itself. The challenge having to source sufficient skilled human labor capacity to deliver goods to a marketplace at prices that marketplace will embrace is ultimately a leadership challenge.

Merely talking about it, or waiting for it to resolve itself are not options. The two options for leaders we’ve spoken to involve concerted, holistic, and transformational change in how to both replenish the aging and shrinking workforce, and how to offset some of the human labor with technology-enabled, off-site equipment.

Neither option is right in the wheelhouse of instincts and proficiencies among our business community’s leaders. It’s time they recognize that they need to declare an all-out strategic war on the labor shortage and rally to bring a new stream of human and technological resources to bear on their plans to deliver new homes and communities to the markets they serve.

John McManusJOHN MCMANUS

John McManus is an award-winning editorial and digital content director for the Residential Group at Hanley Wood in Washington, DC. In addition to the Builder digital, print, and in-person editorial and programming portfolio, his accountability for the group includes strategic content direction for Affordable Housing FinanceAquatics InternationalBig Builder, Custom Home, the Journal of Light ConstructionMultifamily Executive, Pool & Spa News, Professional Deck Builder, ProSales, Remodeling, Replacement Contractor, and Tools of the Trade.