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How is the labor shortage impacting jobs and worker safety?

September 14, 2015
 / Safety / 

The economy is booming and people are going back to work, which means confidence is up and investments in construction projects are on the rise as well. Whether these projects are dedicated to expanding businesses or creating new homes, the fact of the matter is construction workers, plumbers and contracted specialists are in demand. The problem is that not enough workers are showing up.

Workers on the rise, but not enough
To be clear, employment in the construction sector has been growing over the past few years. While the recession put a halt to a high number of construction projects, and many older workers felt it was a good time to retire, things are back in motion now. This is especially true in the real estate department.

In fact, the Commerce Department reported new-home sales hit an annual pace of 507,000 in July, as noted by Bloomberg. This is an almost 26 percent increase from the same time a year ago. Further, this demonstrates an almost doubling of new-home purchases since 2011. However, real estate professionals feel these numbers should be higher, and while it is truE millennials aren't purchasing homes as fast as their baby boomer parents, there is also another factor playing a role here, which is that in many parts of the country, houses are taking longer to be built. The reason is a lack of workers.

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"There is concern about the number of soon-to-be retiring workers."

This isn't specific to homes either, but all sorts of construction. Industry leaders find homes easy to measure as the space is growing rapidly, but big commercial building is in the same boat. Specifically, the Sacramento Bee reported some local homes go days without seeing new work, and projects overall are taking months longer than they should. According to local superintendent Gregg Uttecht, a shortage of workers is the main problem across the board for residential and commercial buildings.

"These are big buildings, and to get them [built] in the time frame the owners want, I'd need six electricians, and the most I have is two," Uttecht said.

Outdated mentality
In an industry that is growing its workforce, how can there not be enough workers? Well, much of it comes down to caliber of skill. For many construction crews, older workers are the norm. Bloomberg highlighted the fact that for electricians, plumbers and framers in Los Angeles, the average worker age is about 50 years old. Not that these workers are unskilled or unable to do their jobs, but it brings concern that the industry may start experiencing a labor shortage as this generation will be retiring sooner than later.

This is the biggest problem. Sure there are plenty of young workers, but not all of them want to go into labor. This is largely due to an outdated mentality about the industry. Many young people are under the impression that construction work is grimy and a thing of the past and that there are machines doing everything worthwhile these days. It is easy to see where the mentality comes from, but as you know, this is not the case. Either way, it is leading to a lack of skilled workers. Just having a body count is not enough. Workers need to be trained and skilled in specific trades within the industry for it to function as a whole, as highlighted by the Orange County Register.

"The lack of construction workers may be impeding the industry's ability to start or complete new projects," said Ken Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America. "The recent acceleration in construction spending may soon level off unless the sector can draw in more workers with the right skills."

According to an article in Industrial Distribution by the American General Contractors of America, students need to be approached earlier and shown that the construction industry is not dated at all, but in fact incorporates many modern tools and skillets to accomplish its day-to-day functions.

The shortage of workers has lead to delays in many projects.Sometimes projects go days without seeing progress.

Safety could suffer

But the slowing down of projects is not the only issue that a shortage of skilled workers introduces to the industry. Safety is another concern. Though there are construction safety systems in place, when a crew is dealing with a large percentage of new workers and workers who are on the verge of retirement, it creates a situation in which safety protocols could be either too routine or not ingrained enough. This is something that crew supervisors and companies as a whole need to be aware of.

According to Note Vault, safety should be the first concern for understaffed crews, or crews that have less skilled workers. Reducing the risk of accidents should be the first priority. Sure, there are deadlines and projects that need to be built, but not at the risk of safety.

If a job site is understaffed, then workers run the risk of tackling too many duties, working longer hours than they should or merely worrying about aspects of the job they shouldn't be troubling themselves with. All of these factors lead to anxiety-driven and stressed workers, which in and of itself increases the chances of potential accidents.

Whether you are part of a comfortably fixed crew or are feeling the strain of the labor shortage, don't let safety and workers' best interest slide as a result. If a project must take longer, then so be it. But see to it that your crew is healthy, not overworked and doing their jobs properly. At the end of the day, this is the main way the construction industry will overcome the labor shortage.

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