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Hiring and retaining construction labor is critical for Idaho’s future

The ability to hire and retain talented construction labor at all levels of education and expertise is creating several challenges throughout Idaho. Because there simply aren’t as many qualified people to fill and run crews, companies are forced to either extend schedules to complete the work with the employees they have or fill necessary positions with less experienced and qualified people.

Both scenarios are equally challenging for construction firms and current building projects. Smaller crew sizes and extended hours can quickly create burnout and reduced productivity. Less experienced employees are more likely to be much less efficient or create things with poorer quality that must be torn out and done again. Or, in the worst scenario, they create an unsafe environment on a construction project because of haste or inexperience. The result in all cases is that construction costs will go up because of extended durations.

The best solution is a long-term one: education. We need to first ensure that the next generation of high school students are interested in the construction industry. We need to introduce young men and women to this exciting field early and give them exposure to construction projects of all types: home-building; commercial construction; infrastructure and roads; civil construction such as bridges, dams and treatment plants. We need to continually train our workforce on the latest technology and safety techniques. When the education never stops, the interest in your vocation becomes regenerated and reinvigorated.

The battle for talent is a good thing for construction labor. This war can result in better wages, more comprehensive benefits and a firm belief from employers that the workforce they have is intrinsically valuable. They are not expendable because we have put the resources into them for training; we understand how they work and what their strengths are, who we can team them with to achieve the best result for all concerned. Plus, there frankly are no people available to replace them. This gives the labor force a leg up in the balance of power, which is always a good thing.

The industry has adapted somewhat to the labor shortage by adopting several techniques including modular construction, more efficient planning and care in what projects the company can effectively undertake. Modular construction can be done on a small or large scale. For example, subcontractors can construct plumbing “trees” in their shop and then deliver to jobsites to be installed when the project is ready for them. Or entire rooms can be constructed in weather-controlled environments and similarly trucked to the jobsite and hoisted into place and connected to the skeleton of the building. The lack of available labor has forced us as construction managers to be much more thoughtful and accurate in our scheduling. We must be efficient and ready for each trade when we say we are, or we risk losing these crews to other projects. It’s made us more effective managers and planners.

Building systems have gotten very technically advanced, from watertight envelopes, to energy efficient HVAC and lighting packages, to low-voltage systems keeping our “smart” buildings “smart.” Modern construction of all types of structures require very advanced and intelligent design teams as well as contractors that can match the intellect of the architect and engineers to execute the vision of the project. Gone are the days of the “dumb guy swinging a hammer,” thank heavens. The industry is fast-paced, fascinating, and easy to enter without an advanced degree. We need to ensure that this message is getting out to every interested person, young and old, so that we can generate interest in a position building the construction projects of today and tomorrow.

Continued construction is an extremely important cog in the wheel of our Idaho economy. We need to balance the rising cost of materials and the immediate and ongoing labor shortage with the modern construction techniques that make construction more efficient and thus less expensive. If projects become too financially burdensome to undertake, owners simply will delay or cancel the planned project. This is bad for all concerned. So far through 2019 we have collectively struck a nice balance between retaining knowledgeable labor crews, making great employees feel valued, and taking advantage of the latest construction technologies, resulting in efficient construction and projects that are as cost effective as possible.

Penny Dennis is the business development manager at Layton Construction in Boise. She received her architect’s license in 1999 and has been in the construction industry for 22 years, 13 of those in the Treasure Valley.

About Penny Dennis