Craft labor shortage seriously affecting mega projects: Poll

More than 80% of petrochemical players believe the current craft labor shortage is serious, according to a poll by Petrochemical Update. Improving conditions for craft professionals is one way owners and contractors are aiming to recruit and retain the best of the best.

Owners must consider the craft when setting sites up in order to recruit and retain the best. Photo: Fluor

“It is important to recognize that construction is a significant part of our economy, 4.5-5% of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP), over 6% globally. We have to take it very seriously,” said Daniel Groves, Construction Users Roundtable (CURT) Director of Operations and Director of Construction Labor Market Analyzer (CLMA).

Groves was speaking in a Panel at the Downstream Construction, Maintenance and Engineering Conference in New Orleans.

Source: Petrochemical Update Poll

“There is expectation that there will be a tremendous amount of project spending. All that spending translates into one labor, craft labor,” he said.

Manufacturing construction spending for chemicals represented nearly half of all construction spending in 2016, according to the American Chemistry Council (ACC).

Source: American Chemistry Council

People available, but not skilled

Groves pointed out that if one were to look at the entire U.S. population of workers, and the total demand for skilled labor based on labor statistics data, the supply/demand ratio would not seem so bad at first.

“The challenge isn’t not having enough bodies, it’s not having enough skills to get the jobs done on time, safely and productively,” Groves said.

Certain crafts like welding are projected to have a shortage of 200,000 over the next few years for all nonresidential construction, he added.

“You can really narrow down the shortages to a dozen or so of the most highly skilled crafts, boilermakers, welders, pipefitters, combo-welders, etc that are the most highly in demand.,” Groves said.

The shortage is being exacerbated by an aging workforce and lack of younger ages entering the workforce. 

“Over the last 10 years, we have seen a decline of new entrants age 16-24 years old coming in by about 32%. By 2030, that will be about 60%,” Groves said. “The other end of the spectrum, those turning 55 and older, has increased over the last decade about 63%, and expected to be about 83% by 2030.”

Industry rebranding

Many believe that the industry will need more than just a total rebranding to recruit the new generation of workers. In a Petrochemical Update Poll, 38% said that a total rebranding would only slightly increase the industry’s attractiveness to younger people.

“I agree with those that said not much, because we can't fake it,"  said Dr. Neil N. Eldin, PhD, Dean of the College of Technology at the University of Houston. “Our industry is tough and gruff and dusty and noisy and physical and so on. The generations now are not interested in that.” 

“We need to consider how can we change our business, the way we do things, the technologies, the tools and so on so that we can be attractive to the younger generations," he added. "Giving them a shovel or a welding torch, that is not going to do it for them. I think we need to focus on more than rebranding."

Work Environment

Rob Clark, program director at CTCI Americas is currently looking after at least 7,000 workers on a mega project. Improving conditions for the craft professionals is an important part of recruitment and retainment, Clark said.

“If you have a good enough wage and good enough per diem, that is one thing. There are soft issues to foucs on,” Clark said. “If you have to spend an hour getting into the parking lot or getting out of the parking lot, or getting to work, and you have someone down the street that pays you a dime less, you will probably go someplace else if its more accessible.”

“There are soft issues that a lot of the contractors are working on, making sure the lunch tents is air conditioned and nice, parking is reasonably close to the job site that they can get in and out of job site easily,” he added.

The opening scene to the 1980s movie “Joe versus the volcano,” is one example. The movie starts with a shot of an ugly factory situated in a field of mud and rain puddles. Into the factory every morning, workers trek through the mud and muck with broken spirits and unhealthy bodies into work to punch a clock, have a drink of terrible coffee from a dirty mug, and then get to work under flashing fluorescent lights.

Productivity is just as much about hiring and training as it is retaining the same employees who know a project’s systems and processes, William Lewis, Senior Manager and Projects Coordinator at SABIC said.

“When you set your sites up, keep the craft in mind. Keep the people in mind,” he said. “Have good facilities, good eating facilities, good break room, good parking and warehouse facilities.”

Consider the craft

The image of the industry is one that pundits have wrestled with for the last 25 years with only slight impact to it, according to Tim Johnson, Senior Director of Governmental Relations for the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER).

“I think the issue is we have always attempted to rebrand it from the outside in rather than the inside out,” Johnson said.

Owners must consider how they connect with the construction and craft professionals, Johnson said.

“We must consider how we treat construction craft professionals,” Johnson said. “Do we treat them as professionals or do we treat them as disposable? Do we do things that effect what we call work life satisfaction for these construction professionals?”

“The best ambassadors we have for this industry are those who have made a positive choice to be a part of it,” Johnson said.

By Heather Doyle