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From the Editor: Who Will Build the Infrastructure We Need?

Mark Scacco on January 14, 2019 - in Articles, Column

Back in 2016, both presidential candidates promised a massive spending bill to rebuild America’s aging infrastructure. In February 2018, the White House released what it referred to as a “blueprint” that would invest $250 billion in public funds, with the goal of spurring additional private investment totalling $1.5 trillion. In late-summer 2018, it was announced that any real action on an infrastructure bill would have to wait until after the midterm elections. Although most in our industry agree a spending bill is sorely needed, perhaps the delay is a good thing; it will give us more time to figure out who will do the actual work.

A 2017 survey by the Associated General Contractors of America reveals that 70 percent of contractor firms are having trouble finding qualified workers, and that number shot up to 91 percent in the 2018 Q2 Commercial Construction Index report. The U.S. Bureau of Labor figures show contractors were struggling to fill an average of 225,000 jobs each month, with a projection of an additional 750,000 construction job openings by 2026.

Squeezed on Three Sides

Several current (and past) trends conspire to create a perfect storm of labor shortage. After years of a steady recovery from the 2008 recession, when 2 million construction-related jobs were lost, the construction sector is booming again, creating high demand for skilled labor across a wide array of disciplines. Of the 2 million displaced workers, however, only about half returned to the industry. As the economy continues to grow, more jobs are available than returning workers.

Further exacerbating the shortage is the decades-long U.S. attitude of promoting four-year college degrees while downplaying the value of technical and vocational education. The result is a lack of young people actively pursuing (or being encouraged to pursue) technical-trades education and training, and instead are pushed to get a four-year college degree. However, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 30 percent of high school graduates enrolled in a four-year public college have yet to receive a degree after six years. Many enter college with no career plan at all other than to just get a degree.

Perhaps the most devastating impact on the workforce is the loss of skill and knowledge due to retirement with no one to fill the vacated jobs. According to projections by The Construction Labor Research Council, there will be a shortage of nearly 80,000 skilled electricians by 2021, and industry will need more than 17,000 new electricians per year to meet projected demand. Similarly, by 2022, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the plumbing and HVAC industry will need approximately 140,000 new workers.

This country needs a massive infrastructure upgrade, and it needs the skilled workforce to deliver those upgrades.

A Silver Bullet?

The AEC industry lags in productivity gains for a number of reasons, including the slow adoption of technology. Not only does this impact operational efficiency, it creates a perception problem among high schoolers and the general public that construction jobs are boring, low-tech and for “dummies.” This perception is far from current reality and only serves to turn the wheel on the labor-shortage problem.

Engineers, architects and other design professionals have always felt they were the “point of the technical spear” in the AEC industry. With the heavy reliance on software for CAD, hydrologic and hydraulic modeling, structural analysis, traffic routing and more, it’s easy to see where this idea originates.

However, as several stories in this issue demonstrate, contractors are the next wave of innovators. From comprehensive construction and project-management software platforms to drone data collection, IoT-connected jobsites, virtual and augmented reality training, scan-to-BIM as-builts and more, the real exciting changes are happening in the field as frequently or more so than in the office.

This is potentially great news for our industry. This country needs a massive infrastructure upgrade, and it needs the skilled workforce to deliver those upgrades. By embracing technology as a tool for improved efficiency, the industry can shed its luddite image and attract bright, talented individuals to a career that satisfies the desire of many young people to work with “tech” while simultaneously making good money and moving our country forward.

Mark Scacco

About Mark Scacco

Mark Scacco, P.E., is the Editor in Residence for Informed Infrastructure magazine and since 2001 has been an AEC industry consultant. He is the president of Scacco LLC and can be reached at mark.scacco@scaccollc.com.

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