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Worker Attraction and Retention in the Construction Industry

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The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has reported an increase in labour and subcontractor shortages across North America. They have stated that a periodic shortage has occurred from a low of 21 percent in 2012 to an escalating high of 56 percent in 2016.
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At the same time, a noticeable recovery in the housing market has shown a rise in housing units from 2009’s 583,000, to an estimated 1.2 million increase on the Wells Fargo Housing Index in 2016; a number similar to the late 1990s boom years. With a recovery in full motion, and in the very sector that encapsulated the great crash, an essential component to the way forward has continued to diminish.

In the resource sector, an ongoing study by the University of Houston (UH) revealed that 90 percent of oil and gas workers who lost their jobs in the downturn have opted not to return to the oil and gas fields. This undeniable percentage comes in conjunction with recent reports from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas (Fed), which states that the oil and gas market had a positive turn for the first time in 2016. Even with an increase in crude oil production according to the Fed, Halliburton Co. stated in December 2016 that they were willing to hire more than 200 workers in the Permian Basin, the most active drilling area in the country. Yet according to the UH survey which had 720 respondents, that tall figure of 90 percent included the workers who either remained unemployed, decided to go back to school, or ultimately removed themselves from the oil and gas fields entirely, with only 13 percent returning to work.

Whether the construction industry has seen its labour shortage arise from tougher immigration policies on foreign-born employees, or whether improving conditions and compensation in these sectors simply remains in vain, the issue of worker attraction and retention in the construction and resource industries seems more imperative than ever. How companies have gone about tackling the labour shortfall and deploying new methods to attract workers beyond a paycheque.

Griffith University Australia (GU) published a paper in 2011 that issued a survey to 397 senior HR managers in the Australian construction and resource industry – a survey to which 56 HR managers responded. 90 percent of respondents were involved in mining, oil and gas exploration and most represented Australian-headquartered organisations.

On addressing the issue of current and future workplace shortages, 57 percent of organisations have planned for and have already implemented the strategy of improving manager-to-employee communications, providing better and stronger management teams, and building employee leadership skills, including targeted supervisor development.

Companies need look no further than the RR40-11 program that the Construction Industry Institute (CII) has researched and developed in correlation with TED, whose main objective is “to provide information to guide senior management in allocating appropriate levels of resources to continuing supervisory education, and to produce a product which will improve the performance of supervisors in the industry.”

Companies and organizations in the construction and resource industries could undoubtedly benefit long-term by adding such a program, guaranteeing a base number of higher skilled workers with a career path that leads to top level promotion in their field. Whether this seems attractive to a current employee or not, it would at the very least motivate or inspire a path toward future self-employment.

Another challenge outlined in the survey was “employee reluctance to reside remotely.” Many of the jobs in mining and energy are located remotely and have fly-in fly-out (FIFO) positions occupied by those who have spouses and dependants living in cities and suburban areas; they are often at such distances from home and family that depression and separation anxiety become too common. And in the modern era, workers being tasked with great transit for employment and suffering mentally as a result seems all too needless and draconian. A consideration to standardize FIFOs across the board for organizations that want to sustain a workforce beyond seasonal work could benefit the industry and the workers long-term.

In addition to FIFOs, GU outlined the resources sector as having a large percentage of employees engaged in non-standard work, such as temporary contract work, as well as the aforementioned seasonal employment, as well as many who do shift work in intensive and extended schedules. According to the survey, such work assists organizational competitiveness in meeting demands for production and export, but also has important implications for employees’ personal and/or family relationships; an ongoing trend that employers are going to have to combat.

Experimental suggestions from GU’s paper state that in remote areas, government should provide child care centres with operating hours to accommodate employees. It may be wishful thinking on behalf of the surveyed organizations, but with job numbers in the resource and construction sectors diminishing regardless of pay upgrades, companies and organizations may have to begin thinking experimentally to sustain a steady workforce capable of profit projections.

Some argue that the labour and subcontractor shortages present in the North American construction industry can be tied to the lack of union representation, something which has diminished greatly throughout the decades. In the union’s place, the industry has seen insurance agencies attempt to take the third-party role of facilitator and benefactor, offering companies both large and small a modern plan for recruiting and retaining workers.

Tri-State Insurance Agency and Augusta Business Insurance both employ social media to campaign against the growing shortage, issuing contemporary plans and strategies via YouTube, stating, “the construction industry is struggling to acquire new talent and maintain existing workers, and in order to combat these challenges, an aggressive employee recruiting and retention plan should be implemented to attract qualified and skilled workers to safeguard your company.”

Certainly, taking advantage of social media to engage with potential candidates, demonstrate organizational camaraderie, communicate benefits of completed projects, share news and stories, and showcase exciting projects can encourage further dedication and motivation from employees. Another tactic for today’s companies is to maintain a positive and frequent presence at local colleges to acquire new talent.

The fall in job numbers and the inability of companies to attract and retain workers has gotten to the point of being broadcast on local news channels around America. It is a wide-reaching and noteworthy issue, because it brings to light the need to promote both job security and work-life balance, along with a better system for career prospects in two sectors that have heavily relied on transient contracts for employees. It’s a shot in the arm that should leave an opportunity for companies looking to survive to take more considerate, contemporary and humane measures in recruiting talent beyond simply providing a pay-cheque.

Industry Changemakers

The construction industry has historically been slow to evolve, drawn to tradition over technology. As the industry is in a state of rapid innovation and advancement, organizations like the Toronto Construction Association (TCA) are working tirelessly to build strong member businesses that won’t fall behind.

June 18, 2019, 7:50 AM EDT