Finding opportunities during challenging times
As the economy sorts itself out in a post-pandemic era, labor shortages have become a hot topic for many industries, from fast food franchises to corporate giants. For Colorado’s construction industry, employee shortages are old (hard) hat.
“The labor challenge, for us, is not a recent COVID thing,” says Joel Pennick, vice president at JE Dunn Construction. “This is something we’ve been talking about for 10 years.”
Over the last decade, skyrocketing growth in Colorado has created unrelenting demand for builders. According to census data, Colorado added almost 750,000 new residents between 2010 and 2020, growing the population by nearly 15%–about twice the growth rate of the rest of the nation. All these new residents have needed houses and apartments where they can live, businesses where they can shop, and offices where they can work.
At the same time, a large portion of the construction industry’s workers are aging and heading towards retirement. A pre-pandemic study from the National Center for Construction Education and Research estimated that 41% of the construction workforce was set to retire by 2031. Data since then suggests some of those retirements were accelerated during the pandemic, exacerbating the situation.
Contractors are struggling to keep up. A recent survey by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) found that 86% of Colorado specialty and general contractors plan to add headcount this year, but 98% have had trouble filling some or all of their open positions. Those surveyed reported higher costs and postponed or delayed projects as a result.
It’s a situation that might not improve anytime soon. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Colorado has about 180,000 workers in construction now, but will need around 220,000 by 2027 to meet demand. That means the industry must attract about 8,000 new workers each year—for the next five years.
It’s a challenge without an easy—or singular—solution. Here are four things the state’s industry stakeholders are doing to help bridge the labor gap.
Construction work requires knowledge and experience that have been hard to come by in recent years. Over the last couple of decades, vocational education programs in high schools have suffered a heavy blow, due to budget cuts and curriculum shifts meant to prepare students for a four-year college instead of a career in the trades.
Additionally, many construction workers benefit from education they receive on the job site, spending the early stages of their career learning from senior craftsmen. But as the industry loses more workers to retirement, it’s also losing access to that passed-down knowledge.
“This isn’t really a workforce shortage–you can find people,” Pennick says. “But most of them aren’t skilled. There’s a ton of training required, and safety is important. It’s a skilled workforce shortage.”
Several programs are working to boost training options for people interested in entering the field. At the high school level, the Construction Education Foundation–a nonprofit arm of the AGC–has partnered with Front Range school districts to offer Careers in Construction classes. Students can earn core certification in the Home Builders Institute’s pre-apprenticeship training program in as little as two semesters. They can then go on to earn specialty certifications in electrical, plumbing, masonry, and more, and much of the work is eligible for college credit.
For adults looking for a career change, the foundation also offers Construction Careers Now!, a free four-week training program in Commerce City. Classes meet in the evenings to avoid conflicting with participants’ existing day jobs.
Other options include Emily Griffith Technical College, which offers a nine-month Construction Essentials program that prepares graduates to move directly into apprenticeships. Between Construction Essentials and the other construction-related courses it offers, such as welding, the college has served nearly 5,000 students in the last year.
“We’re still in the middle of this reshuffling, rethinking of careers [following the pandemic],” said Linda Van Doren, the school’s vice president of education. “We’re seeing a lot of people evaluate what it is they do and changing as a result.”
Part of the education effort also involves teaching potential workers about the benefits of a career in construction. The annual mean wage for Colorado construction workers in 2021 was $53,220, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and specialized workers can often earn much more. Yet many young people say the industry doesn’t appeal to them.
A 2017 National Association of Home Builders survey found that among young adults who knew the type of career they wanted to pursue, just 3% were interested in construction trades. Those who hadn’t yet decided on a career ranked construction trades low—ninth on a list of 14 career options.
“There’s an assumption that if I work in the trades, I’m going to be swinging a hammer my whole life, and that’s not it at all,” says Dustin Nelson, Colorado Springs division president with David Weekley Homes. “There are very high-paid positions in home building companies and with a lot of our trade partners, and I don’t think that’s really well known.”
In addition to good pay, the field also offers flexibility. Many in the industry learn a craft and go on to start their own business. Some work on a job site and then go to college for a degree in construction management. Others work in construction during the summer to help pay tuition for a degree in something else entirely.
Industry leaders and partners are working to reframe perceptions of what a career in the industry can look like. Careers in Construction brings tradespeople into its high school classrooms to talk to the students about what they do. Instead of career fairs, the program hosts “hiring events” to showcase the industry’s immediate job opportunities. And a new bilingual town hall-style event this year will invite the influencers in students’ lives–family members, friends, and teachers–to learn more about career opportunities in construction and address any concerns they might have about their students’ safety, earning potential or otherwise.
“If you don’t have a parent or a friend or a cousin in construction, you don’t know how to get into the industry, what it looks like, who to call,” says J.E. Dunn’s Pennick, who volunteers with Careers in Construction and sits on the AGC–Colorado board. “We’re trying to close that gap a little bit.”
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Tackling the labor challenge has required the industry to band together as well as work closely with government officials, foundations, school systems and others with a stake in Colorado’s progress.
Careers in Construction, for example, is largely made possible by donations of money, time, and materials from industry home builders, contractors, suppliers, and manufacturers. Support has also come from foundations like the Daniels Fund and city and regional governments.
At the end of last year, the Denver City Council approved voluntary donations from building permit fees to help fund Careers in Construction programming in Denver Public Schools. Building permit customers in Denver now have the option to contribute $25 to the program for residential permits or $200 for commercial permits. If even 60% of customers opt to contribute, Careers in Construction would receive $375,000 in the first year. Colorado Springs has a similar program in place. The cities benefit by gaining more construction workers for future critical infrastructure projects and improvements at places like Denver International Airport.
Careers in Construction has also worked with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment to exempt the program’s students from child labor laws, so incoming high school juniors and seniors can participate in summer construction internships.
The labor challenge is so big that it requires cooperation—even among business competitors. “It’s an industry issue, not a company problem,” Pennick says.
Of course, technology factors into all of this as well. Builders are leaning on solutions that help short-handed teams work and collaborate more effectively. David Weekley Homes has started using proprietary scheduling software tied to its vendor portal to help stay in touch with suppliers and subcontractors and adjust project timelines as necessary.
“If it’s taking three times as long to build a home as it did two years ago, we’re trying to project that to our trade partners so they can plan better, for both labor needs and material shortages,” Nelson says.
Emily Griffith Technical College has been working with the AGC, Denver Public Schools, and other industry partners on a new Virtual Design Construction Academy that will launch this fall. The program will teach students about 3D modeling, robotics, and other emerging construction technologies that can help the industry run more efficiently.
“I always say that career and technical education is an accordion, and we have to flex and adapt as industries do,” says the school’s Van Doren. “We’re working to stay on top of those changes in real time.”
But while technology can help ease the burdens of the workforce shortage, most agree that the problem is more human than digital. “Construction technologies are amazing now,” Pennick says. “But at the end of the day, someone’s got to hammer that nail. It still takes a person to go put that pipe in, hang that sheet of drywall.”
Recognizing that humanness is something David Weekley Homes has been trying to do more of as it navigates the workforce shortage with its employees, suppliers, and trade partners. The builder frequently brings in food trucks for lunch and hosts special events in its completed model homes for tradespeople, so they can show their families what they’ve done.
“These guys have worked 100 percent of the time since COVID started,” Nelson says. “It’s not a job that can be done from the house, and there’s been all kinds of stress. It’s hard for everyone right now, and making sure people feel appreciated—that’s powerful.”