Shortages of skilled labor in the construction industry have forced concrete contractors to adapt but some of the old ways, like face-to-face interactions between job candidates and employers, still stand up in the new post-COVID digital age.
That’s according to Beverly Garnant, the executive director at the American Society of Concrete Contractors, who said the concrete industry is “not alone” in the struggle to fill skilled labor positions.
“There’s many industries that are having the exact same issues,” she said.
Garnant, who assists the organization’s members with recruiting, onboarding and training, said there is no magic button on the ASCC’s website that will tell contractors how to recruit skilled labor.
She recounted one member contractor who called the ASCC recently seeking advice on filling vacant skilled labor positions in his company. Garnant said she called seven contractors, seeking advice for the member.
“I got totally different answers from every single person,” she said. “Nobody said the same thing.”
But, Garnant said, in-person communication should be a priority.
“I think that face to face is the very best way in almost all situations,” she said. “You can sit down and get a better read on someone. To me, that’s always going to trump anything you can do digitally.”
Approaches to a lingering problem
At the beginning of 2022, the Associated Builders and Contractors reported that the industry faced a workforce shortage of 650,000.
In the months since, not much has changed and the rollout of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is expected to add demand for hundreds of thousands of additional construction jobs in the years to come.
Garnant said some of the more creative approaches to the labor shortage have come from the National Center for Construction Education and Research, which has rolled out digital trading cards with details and wage information about different positions in the industry.
The cards include details about jobs like concrete finisher, with an average salary of more than $58,000 annually and an average hourly wage of almost $28 per hour.
Another card details the average salary of masons, at $57,646 annually, and lists skills required to be a mason such as creativity, the ability to be detail oriented and the ability to work with numbers.
“They put the salary on there,” she said. “We’re still fighting the perception that if your kid doesn’t go to college there’s something wrong with them.”
Garnant said the ASCC hopes to increase their collaboration with the NCEER’s Build Your Future initiative, a national grassroots effort which aims to connect recruits to resources about careers in the construction industry.
The initiative now has partnerships with five states: Indiana, Arizona, Virginia, Missouri and Florida.
“We’re just now getting that launched,” she said.
Samuel Kloppmann, a talent acquisition and onboarding specialist for Mid-States Concrete Industries, said his company has changed the way it thinks about concrete labor.
The Illinois-based company, which designs and manufactures precast concrete systems, had problems with staffing in the past and has experienced higher turnover rates since the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to Kloppmann.
“Concrete labor is a talent position,” he said. “In the past, we haven’t thought about it that way. I’m not hiring you because you’re a body that swings a hammer. I’m hiring you because you’re an addition to the team.”
He said it is crucial for companies like Mid-States, which has approximately 250 employees, to provide pathway development options from concrete laborer positions, and he said that’s exactly what Mid-States has done.
Mid-States’ workforce, Kloppmann said, is split between labor positions at the company’s plant, its wet cast department and the yard.
“I can attract top talent but if I don’t have a path for you to advance, we’re going to lose top talent.”
Kloppmann said Mid-States has increased its retention rates in past months, so the company is hiring less.
"The timeline is too short to identify a trend but in the last two months our retention of new hires has increased by 20%," he said.
Despite the challenges, smaller companies, like Valley Concrete and Construction based in Western Massachusetts, are making do.
Larry Giard, the owner of Valley Concrete and Construction, said his company has experienced the same issues other companies have – like with younger people not interested in labor.
But the company has had very little turnover.
“We’ve been around for 50 years,” Giard said. “We pay our employees enough that they stay around and try to treat them fair.”
He added that some concrete contracting companies are “charging the most outrageous numbers they’ve ever charged but they will not pay their help.”
Demand increases for new blood
Employers are increasingly turning to trade and academic programs to find more capable workers. For example, at the Concrete Industry Management Program run by Middle Tennessee State University, graduating students are seeing salary offers increasing and students are taking more time to consider job offers.
That’s according to Jon Huddleston, the director of Middle Tennessee State’s CIM program, who said the program recently had to turn away employers due to such high interest at a recent career fair.
The positions CIM graduates consider include jobs as project managers, plant managers, estimators, logistics specialists and construction superintendents, according to the program’s website.
While the leverage for industry job candidates increases, he said employers are calling CIM from surrounding states, seeking recruits.
Huddleston said it was harder to sell construction careers in the last recession. Despite current challenges, like inflation and supply chain woes, Huddleston said the industry continues to create opportunities and said the program is taking a longer look at social media as a way to attract more students.
Huddleston said some parents of prospective students are concerned about the ups and downs in the economy but Huddleston tells them that construction has kept going strong.
“We’re typically seeing that within two months leading into graduation, about 75% of our students have a job,” he said. “That number could be higher but students were taking their time.”