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How Construction Firms Should Prepare for a Widening Skills Gap

Two construction workers looking at a blueprint

Baby boomers in leadership roles such as superintendent and foreman are retiring. The available talent pool for niche skilled trades such as masonry detailing and woodworking is both shrinking and aging. And trade schools are facing declining enrollments for new apprentices that can pick up the slack.

Any way you slice it, construction firms are dealing with a skills gap for subcontractor talent that’s only going to get wider in the coming years.

So how can employers in the construction industry get ahead of the curve and set themselves up for success?

To find out, we spoke with Aerotek Account Manager Tanner Fasold, whose work placing construction talent in the heart of Pennsylvania gives him a representative vantage point for the challenges faced by builders nationwide.

He recommends the following: 

Take a systematic approach to on-the-job training

As with any widespread issue affecting an industry, it’s often helpful to look at what the largest and most well-resourced firms are doing to tackle the problem. In terms of the niche skilled trades talent gap, national construction firms have begun offering apprenticeships and robust on-the-job training that’s commensurate with a technical school’s certification process. 

“The most successful companies find motivated people among their current workforce and train them for needed roles,” says Fasold.

One particularly effective approach to maintaining contact with high-demand workers has been to require a multi-year commitment for program completion — much like a degree — with reimbursement and certification available at the end.

Emphasize outreach and education

In addition to a shrinking labor pool, skilled trades also face difficulty at the onset of the talent pipeline. Many early-career candidates come from four-year college programs in construction management rather than skilled trade apprenticeship programs, and don’t always understand the growing value of specialized skills. 

What can the average construction firm do to address this issue, and be a favorable destination for the next generation of skilled laborers? “Go to the beginning of the career journey, where people are most interested in learning how to build a house or a building, and emphasize how important skilled trades are,” says Fasold.

Employers can do outreach through job fairs, seek referrals from existing employees, and become more intentional about marketing to the candidate pool rather than potential customers only. People need to know that skilled trades can be just as lucrative and rewarding as more generalized project management work.

Focus on retention

Retention may be the most efficient place to focus your efforts. As competition for skilled trade talent heats up, construction firms have been introducing more extreme measures to keep their workers happy. It’s increasingly common to see skilled-trade wages paid to keep top talent even during downtime in production schedules. Higher wages, more flexibility, and additional perks for workers with the scarcest skill sets are all regarded as requirements for firms to remain competitive.

“Make your core crew happy, and skilled trades talent will come to you,” says Fasold. “Earning a reputation as a teacher, mentor and nurturer will keep key people in your firm, and make them want to grow on the job.”

Find creative ways to broaden the talent pool

The talent gap may widen to the point where construction firms of all sizes will need to look at expanding the talent pool to include international laborers. 

Says Fasold, “Big firms have already shored up their processes for filing visa requests through the State Department.” 

Also underway is a gradual reduction of threshold requirements for skilled laborers. In some roles where such clearances are not required by regulations, background checks and drug testing are going away. 

Build relationships with contingent labor providers

As the skills gap widens for certain niche skill sets, the job market is likely to evolve a new mindset for employing skilled tradespeople. Contingent labor subcontracting is likely to emerge to fill the need more efficiently. Staffing vendors that are moving in the direction of managed services are a great resource to lean on as that trend continues.

While it’s not ideal to wait for new vendors and products, the above-listed strategies can put you in a better spot when they arrive. In the meantime, construction firms should hold firm to their original purpose to attract and retain existing talent. 

As Fasold says, “Stay true to why you got into construction to start with. You’re building things people need. Don’t lose that vision.” 

To find out how you can adjust your hiring approach to better fit your local talent market, reach out to Aerotek today.