It was a few years back; I was at a Board meeting of a rural school in Colorado. The board was comprised of hard-working, big-hearted, and dedicated individuals. We worked together to resolve many issues, but one gripe outside the project scope kept surfacing: football. Understand that many of the board members were not only citizens of the town; they were graduates of the school we were working on.

It would go like this: we would finish the meetings and discuss plans for the weekend, school activities, and other important local events. Certain board members would be jolted into frustration about the football team or lack thereof. The smaller rural school districts were combining schools to have enough players or retaining their own teams and opting for 6-man football. The glory days stories of them playing football out of school spirit and local pride were rooted deep. There was significant frustration about how an expanded school could not support a team. The Board had tried to incentivize kids to play and worked over parents but to no avail. “It’s the video games” stealing their attention or “Helicopter Parents” being too worried about injuries and not understanding the reward of physical and mental toughness. In the end, I don’t think it was about the kids. It was about the previous generation sacrificing and expecting others to do the same for their entertainment. After all, Friday Night Lights is so much more than football. Does the AEC industry have a similar situation?

I recently attended a Client Appreciation Event hosted by Terracon where the proceeds went to the ACE Mentor Program. Events – ACE Mentor Program of America I had heard of ACE, and it struck me that this was not the typical golf tournament benefactor. The event raised money for scholarships for young professionals to advance their careers in the Architect, Construction, and Engineering (ACE) Industries. This, coupled with the constant discussion of labor shortages now being the biggest driver of project cost and schedule overruns on our project, got me wondering how big the challenge is ahead for the Owners of projects. Here are some findings:

  1. When the recession hit in 2007, few industries were hit harder than construction, which slipped into decline earlier and recovered
    later than any other job sector. The industry was forced to lay off more than two million workers, and many Baby Boomers either retired
    or left the field altogether to find more secure work. The construction industry will need to attract nearly 650,000 additional workers
    on top of the normal pace of hiring in 2022 to meet the demand for labor, according to a model developed by Associated Builders and
  2. One in five skilled workers is over the age of 55.
  3. In its 2016-2017 U.S. talent shortage survey, the global staffing firm Manpower Group reported that skilled trade vacancies were the
    most challenging jobs to fill in the country. The number of construction workers aged 25-54fell 8% over the past decade. Meanwhile, the
    share of older workers exiting the workforce soared. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the industry’s
    average retirement age is 61, and more than 1 in 5 construction workers are currently older than 55.
  4. Trades, including electricians, carpenters, welders, bricklayers, plumbers, and masons (among others), have maintained the No. 1
    position in vacancies from 2010 to the present.
  5.  Simonson noted that 93 percent of construction firms report they have open positions they are trying to fill. Among those firms, 91
    percent are having trouble filling at least some of those positions – particularly among the craft workforce that performs the bulk of
    onsite construction work.

What is of interest is that in many of the source articles, the solution is to recruit students away from college, recruit away from competitors, and offer 2003-like benefits. As the Board aforementioned, there needs to be a realization that the influx of work and reduction of available trained professionals, that work is physical, demanding, and mentally challenging. You have to commute unpaid, work through conflicts on the site, and your job is often publicly criticized. Like the parents of the non-football players, parents are opting for alternative options for their children. I’ll admit that I got my sons jobs in construction not so that they would love it and make it a career but so they respected what demanding work it was and had them consider college career options as a better alternative, and it worked.

The board never solved the football problem at the time, but the good news is as of 2023, they have a roster of 20. Perhaps with new technologies, ongoing mentorship, and better design solutions, we can work to reduce the demand (not replace) the skilled workers that, at the end of the day, produce our visions and designs.

Paul Wember, President

News Releases | ABC: Construction Industry Faces Workforce Shorta
Construction Workforce Shortages Risk Undermining Infrastructure Projects As Most Contractors Struggle To Fill Open Positions | Associated General Contractors of America (