How can Arizona cope with the growing demand for labor in the construction industry?

Arizona’s Five Cs – copper, cattle, climate, cotton, and citrus – have long been the pillars that have supported the state’s economy. Today, there is a new C driving the growth of the state: construction.

After an initial decline in activity during the first wave of closures in March 2020, the construction market gained momentum after Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey classified the industry as essential.

“We didn’t know if this was all going to end,” says Steve Whitworth, president of Kitchell. “When construction was seen as a core business, things continued. Our volume was down from what we had planned for the year, but it was exactly where we were in 2019, so it didn’t set us back as we thought at the start of the pandemic. “

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The growing need for new projects and leasehold improvements is strong, with no signs of slowing down. But can the construction industry keep pace with demand?

Big hangover from the recession

The number one problem in the construction industry is the lack of skilled labor, but it is not a new phenomenon. Since the Great Recession of the late 2000s, companies have struggled to recruit and retain workers.

“In 2008, when the economy took a big turn and the bubble burst, Arizona lost about 40,000 construction and skilled workers who never returned. Our industry has struggled with this for the past 12 years, and we have never returned to the levels we had before 2008, ”notes Dave Tilson, vice president of business development at Renaissance Companies.

Many construction workers who found themselves unemployed took jobs elsewhere or left the industry altogether. The problem is compounded by the fact that Arizona was hit particularly hard by the recession, resulting in a slower recovery relative to other states – which it was still struggling with in early 2020.

“We were already facing a shortage of skilled labor before the pandemic. Now our concern is that with the opening of the floodgates it is going to be even worse. There are a lot of mega-projects coming up in the region that are going to require a lot of resources and a highly skilled workforce. It will be very competitive, ”explains Whitworth.

This intense demand for new projects is cause for celebration when companies have the workers to get the job done safely and to exacting standards. Excessive stretching leads to sloppy work and can damage reputation.

“This is the kind of thing that can hurt a business in the future because if we take more than we can handle, it affects our reputation as a company capable of delivering a highly specialized, unique and exceptional product. to our client. Says Dave Pisani, director of systems operations at Integration of Clearwing systems. “Where do you draw that line?” “

The shortage of candidates is not exclusive to a single industry segment or experience level either.

“We all struggle to find competent and qualified staff, from craftspeople to management, engineers and designers. The construction lacks qualified people, ”comments Korey Wilkes, principal architect at Butler Design Group.

Rising prices for materials, including steel, wood and copper, add to the anxiety.

Whitworth adds, “Labor and materials – what else is there? If both are a concern, then it is a problem. On the positive side, we don’t see a situation in 2008. We’re going to fix the labor issues, we’re going to fix the material issues, and we’re going to find a way to do it.

Invest internally

Finding manpower is a challenge, but breakthroughs, ribbon cuts and everything in between are still happening in Arizona. If there is a silver lining to the labor shortage, it’s that companies have doubled the importance of investing in their workforce.

Two years ago, Electric DP launched an internal employee development program called DP University. Dan Puente, founder and CEO of the company, explains: “We wanted to take the program of the National Center for Education and Research in Construction and modify it to make our people a little stronger, not only technically, but also from the point of view. leadership perspective. It was important for us to develop these people and make them a little more complete. ”

Creating an in-house training system is not easy, but the return on investment is well worth the effort. For Pisani, training is essential. Most of its employees have backgrounds in entertainment production. They may be familiar with the complex lighting and audio systems the company installs in schools, places of worship and other large venues because they have worked as roadies or sound engineers, but they are less familiar with them. traditional building concepts.

“We can’t just find these people with special skills, we have to create them,” Pisani notes. “Part of our training initiative is to do just that – create programs so that we can help people get to where we want them to go. This is the next step in our evolution.

Other companies work with industry-specific organizations, such as the Arizona Builders Alliance (ABA) and the Associated General Contractors (AGC), to train their employees.

“We work a lot with the AGC and the ABA to continue to develop our professional professions,” said Shelby Saifi, director of human resources at Haydon Building Corp. “For example, we’ll send people to the commercial driver’s license program if they’re interested in operating these kinds of machines and using them through this process.

Additionally, Hayden, along with other companies such as Kitchell and Ryan Companies, offer internship programs that expose students to the field and can lead to future employment.

“We have a strong academy of interns and about 15 university students come to work with us each summer,” says Whitworth. “We expose them to all areas of the business and hopefully bring them full-time when they graduate. The academy is an important part of our recruitment process.

Haydon’s program provides opportunities primarily for students majoring in construction management or engineering. Interns spend their days on a job site working with various team members on the project to see how each role contributes to the finished product.

Chuck Carefoot, senior vice president of Ryan Companies, explains that since the job market is tight, it’s important to invest in people early in their careers to develop them for future roles. “We are always looking for a large number of interns to start, then hire entry-level and place people with internal mentors to help them see a future with us and in the industry. “

Sowing seeds

For decades, construction jobs have been viewed as a reliable way to achieve the American Dream. When it became popular in high school to push everyone into college, a career in the trades began to seem less desirable.

“I think our education system tends to push people away from the trades by saying they have to go to college,” Wilkes says. “And while this is great for some, being a craftsman makes a good living and is worthy work. “

Generational differences have also changed the way construction companies approach recruiting talent. What motivates a person born in 1990 is different from what motivates a person born in 1970.

“It’s important that Millennials feel that the work they do is contributing to the common good. It ties this extrinsic and intrinsic motivation together. If you provide that in any role, you will have happy employees who want to be successful, ”says Saifi.

Chelsea Porter, director of marketing at Renaissance Companies, adds that the generational mix can be beneficial for everyone involved. “You have your very traditional field workers who have come up through the ranks and bring a major skill set. Now we are mixing these folks with these millennials who are tech-savvy and think differently. Bridging that gap and teaching everyone to complement each other has been an interesting process, but I think it helps our company stay ahead as a general contractor.

For many companies, dealing with long-term labor shortages means working with teenagers – sometimes even younger – to educate them about building as a rewarding career. For example, the national ACE (Architecture. Construction. Engineering) Inc. mentoring program connects high school students with contractors, architects and engineers who nurture teens’ interest in construction.

Locally, Build Your Future Arizona (BYFAZ) is an initiative of the Phoenix Chamber Foundation that educates students about the opportunities available to them in the construction industry. Puente sits on its advisory board.

“The most important thing that kids and parents don’t understand is that building is a rewarding career choice. Parents don’t realize that some of our senior executives in the field are making six figures a year. Often times they assume that you have to go to college to make a lot of money and have a stable job, ”he says. “I think the industry will eventually make this change and become desirable again, but it is not enough to cope with what we are facing right now.”

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