Bridging the labor mismatch in US construction

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The US construction sector seems set for a jobs boom. The US Bipartisan Infrastructure Law projects $550 billion of new infrastructure investment over the next decade, which our modeling suggests could create 3.2 million new jobs across the nonresidential construction value chain. That’s approximately a 30 percent increase in the overall US nonresidential construction workforce, which would mean 300,000 to 600,000 new workers entering the sector—every year.

This is a big ask for an industry that is already struggling to find the people it needs. In October 2021, 402,000 construction positions1 remained unfilled at the end of the month, the second-highest level recorded since data collection began in December 2000.

In this environment, wages have already increased significantly since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, reflecting intense competition for employees, with employers offering higher pay or other nonwage benefits. Between December 2019 and 2021, construction wages grew by 7.9 percent.2 Competition from other sectors for the same pool of labor is heating up, too. For example, over the same period, transportation and warehousing wages grew by 12.6 percent. The prospect of higher pay and better working conditions is already tempting experienced workers away from construction and into these and other sectors.

No end in sight

Today’s mismatches are likely to persist because of structural shifts in the labor market. The relationship between job openings and unemployment has departed from historical trends. In January 2022—two years from the start of the pandemic—the US unemployment rate stood at 4.0 percent, close to its prepandemic level of 3.5 percent. Job openings remained exceptionally high, however, with 10.9 million unfilled positions as of the end of December 2021, compared with 5.9 million in December 2019.

This labor supply imbalance has multiple root causes, some shorter term and cyclical while others are more structural in nature. For example, the pandemic brought forward the retirements of many in the baby-boomer generation, with an estimated 3.2 million leaving the workforce in 2020—over a million more than in any year before 2016. According to the American Opportunity Survey, among those who are unemployed, concerns about physical health, mental health, and lack of childcare remain the dominant impediments preventing reentry into the workforce. Research on the “Great Attrition/Great Attraction” also highlights the importance of nonwage components of the employee value proposition. Record job openings and quit rates highlight employees’ growing emphasis on feeling valued by their organization, supportive management, and flexibility and autonomy at work.

Additionally, the pipeline of new construction workers is not flowing as freely as it once did. Training programs have been slow to restart operations after pandemic-driven safety concerns led to their suspension the spring of 2020. The industry is finding it more difficult to attract the international workforce that has been an important source of talent for engineering, design, and contracting activities. Net migration has been falling since 2016, a trend accelerated by COVID-19 travel restrictions.3 Between 2016 and 2021, net migration declined steadily from 1.06 million to 244,000.

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Impact on projects

The interconnected nature of the construction value chain means that the labor mismatch generates knock-on effects across the project life cycle and supply chain. By late 2021, project owners were reporting that up to 25 percent of material deliveries to sites were either late or incomplete. In project execution, the combination of higher hourly rates, premiums and incentives, and overtime payments was resulting in overall labor costs as much as double prepandemic levels. Meanwhile, difficulty accessing skilled and experienced people was leading some owners to report project delays related to issues around the quality and productivity of on-site work.

In some US cities and their suburbs, wage growth has surpassed the level seen in core Gulf Coast counties at the height of the shale oil boom. Labor shortages in the shale sector drove wages up by 5 to 10 percent and were correlated with steep drops in productivity. The productivity of some tasks fell by 40 percent or more during shale construction peaks (exhibit), and overall productivity declined by about 40 percent per year when labor was in short supply. This forced owners to extend project timelines by 20 to 25 percent. The impact of a long-term, nationwide labor mismatch might be even more severe than the shale industry’s experience, given that oil companies were able to attract new workers from around the country.

During the shale-oil boom, tight labor market conditions correlated with steep productivity declines.

Getting back into balance

The labor mismatch in the construction sector is bad today, and set to get worse. To avoid a decade or more of rising costs, falling productivity, and ever-increasing project delays, companies in the industry should consider thoughtful actions now.

Those actions could address three components of the challenge. First, companies could do everything possible to maximize productivity through measures aimed at improving efficiency across the value chain. Second, they could expand the pool of available labor by doubling down on accessing diverse talent and working harder to retain the employees already in their organization. Finally, they could consider making labor a strategic priority, with senior leadership attention within companies.

Improving construction productivity

Companies could access a range of levers to reduce the labor content required per job and drive to improve productivity in project development and delivery. Those levers involve changes to project designs and fresh thinking about when, where, and how work is done.

Improvements in productivity occur long before work starts on the ground. They include rigorous control of project scope, design simplification, and standardization. Increasing the use of off-site and modular construction, for example, could allow projects to capture multiple benefits, including accelerated design cycles; the greater productivity associated with industrialized, factory floor manufacturing techniques; automation; and less time spent on site.

Smarter execution management, enabled by digital technologies and analytics techniques could drive better, faster decision making during project delivery. Real-time data collection, for example, gives project managers earlier, more detailed insights about progress, allowing them to intervene more effectively to maintain productivity and keep projects on track. Intelligent simulation software allows teams to evaluate hundreds of thousands of possible critical paths, identifying approaches that could be more efficient or less risky than the conventional wisdom.

Lean construction is another proven way to drive significant and sustainable productivity improvements. Establishing a centralized, continuous improvement engine could enhance on-site execution through integrated planning, performance management, and waste elimination. Key stakeholders across the project work with a common, agreed set of key performance indicators. That allows them to address issues in real time and facilitates collaboration to reduce waste and variability work. Capability building across the planning and construction teams could help team members understand and adopt lean construction practices.

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Reimagining talent

To ensure access to the skills they need, construction sector companies can accelerate the onboarding of recruits, boost retention by revisiting what employees want beyond wages, and invest more in developing their pipelines of future workers.

In the near term, employers could prioritize review of job applications and reduce the number of steps in both the interview and onboarding process. In the medium term, both the public and private sectors could look to reduce hiring timelines and shift to a skills-based approach when hiring.

In the medium term, retaining current staff and attracting new talent will both turn on understanding of what employees value beyond wages. Competitive wages are now table stakes, so employees are thinking about a broader set of benefits and workplace characteristics when making decisions about where to work. Research on attrition in the postpandemic workplace has shown that they are placing more emphasis on autonomy, flexibility, support, and upward mobility.

In the longer term, the construction industry can consider a new approach to talent attraction, development, and retention. Talent acquisition could begin early, through partnerships with educational institutions including universities, colleges, and high schools. These partnerships could boost awareness of the possibilities of a career in the sector and ensure future employees have appropriate skills prior to onboarding.

Companies could also look more widely for potential recruits, considering individuals who have taken alternative educational paths, such as technical degrees or hands-on experience. The Rework America Alliance, a Markle-led coalition in which McKinsey is a partner, illustrates the importance of skills-based, rather than credential-based, hiring. A skills-based perspective is key to tapping into the talents of the 106 million workers who have built capabilities through experience but whose talents are often unrecognized because they don’t have a four-year college degree. A skills-based approach could be complemented by reimagining apprenticeships to bring younger students and vocational talent into the industry at an earlier stage in their careers.

Employers could consider working with a range of nontraditional sources of talent, including veteran-transition programs, formerly incarcerated individuals, and others. Homeboy Industries provides an example of the local impact, effectiveness, and potential of working with often overlooked population segments. Moreover, identifying and attracting talent from outside the traditional paths used by the construction industry could also help it to increase the diversity of its workforce. Today, 88 percent of the sector’s workforce is White and 89 percent is male.4

Looking at labor through a strategic lens

Labor and skills shortages have the potential to slow growth and erode profitability across the construction value chain. For C-suites, there’s no other single issue that could protect against significant cost erosion. Companies could consider establishing a systematic talent acquisition and retention program, led by a C-level executive and a core part of the CEO agenda. That program could first be tasked with building a robust fact base on current and emerging labor needs and availability gaps. It could then identify a bold set of initiatives that address labor-related issues across the value chain. This exercise starts in the boardroom, but it doesn’t stop there. Leadership will likely need to be increasingly present in the field and on the job site too, celebrating and recognizing top talent throughout the organization.

The labor challenge extends well beyond corporate boundaries. Since the successful delivery of a project could be jeopardized by labor shortages in a single value-chain participant, project owners and contractors may want to adapt the structure of project relationships and contracts. Moving away from traditional contracting methods to collaborative contracts, for example, allows participants to share market risks and opportunities as a project evolves, rather than baking in worst-case estimates at the outset of negotiations.

The US construction sector is poised to revitalize, replace, and expand the country’s infrastructure. Done right, that will power inclusive growth and set up the economy for success in the 21st century. To do so, the sector will need to address its labor challenges. That calls for the application of a diverse set of tools and approaches to create better jobs, get the most out of its people, and optimize agility and collaboration across the value chain.

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