Across the construction industry, contractors say there is one big hurdle they have been fighting to overcome for years - the image of the industry. Those in the industry said the image they fight is one of dirty, gritty work with low pay and benefits and with little career mobility.
“We do have a very poor industry image,” said Bill Caldwell, president and CEO of Waldrop Mechanical Services based in Spartanburg. “In the industry, we have to shoulder a lot of the blame for that image because we have not done enough to change it.”
Caldwell, who also serves as corporate partner liaison for the Clemson University Construction Science and Management Department, moderated a panel discussion last month in Charlotte addressing the current and future challenges facing the construction industry in the Southeast.
Another component of the image battle for construction is the diversification. Roger Liska, chairman of the Clemson program, said that diversification has led to associations within the industry to actually work against each other and not together to battle the image issue. But, he said the biggest problem is the overall perception of the industry.
“The impression is that it is a blue-collar job, not a business job, and they don’t think of things like project management or even leadership … they really don’t get a complete picture,” Liska said. “What we hear from students transferring into our program is that students never even knew the program was around.”
That image issue has led to a sharp decline in the construction workforce. According to Caldwell, the industry had nearly 10 million employed prior to 2008. During the recent recession, those numbers dropped to around seven million. He said the industry still suffers from a lack of workforce.
But, the image of the industry may not be the only thing working against it. Mac Carpenter, president of BE&K Building Group in Greenville, said the construction business is a risky one and one that brings about a different set of challenges for workers looking to enter or stay in the construction workforce.
“What I see today is people looking for the work/life balance,” Carpenter said. “If you are in a specialized market, you aren’t necessarily building big plants in Greenville. You might have a big project in Charleston or Alabama and that makes people uproot themselves personally or their family and that is hard for people to do.”
Another battle the construction industry fights is the rising cost of product needed to complete contracts.
“You have tougher contracts and owners are trying to put more and more risk, even beyond reason, on the construction company,” Carpenter said. “Owners also demand faster schedules and the margins for work are becoming borderline profitable to a company.
“Unfortunately, contractors are accepting those parameters and eventually it is going to blow up. It really can’t compress anymore.”
Related to workforce, contractors have to struggle with the rising costs of attracting and keeping talent. Carpenter said there is something to be said about loyalty, but with larger contractors that loyalty in the workforce is a little harder to find, especially when money is involved.
“I think the cost issue as it relates to labor isn’t going to get any better. It’s only going to get worse,” Carpenter said.
With the image issue and rising costs keeping contractor’s pencils sharpened, the question becomes whether the industry will get any better.
Liska said one way to improve the workforce situation within construction is for contractors to invest more into training its employees. He said studies show for every $1 a contractor invests in training employees, the return on investment is double.
“Companies need to open their eyes and realize there is a benefit to provide training,” Liska said. “There is the return on investment, but studies also show there is less absenteeism linked to that additional training.”
Don Warren, executive vice president of the Greenville division of McCrory Construction, said the image issue with construction has only gotten worse despite it not being a complete depiction of the industry.
He did suggest a different environment for general contractors to work under that would increase productivity and potentially reduce costs in the long run.
“What I see happening with some of the bigger, more progressive trade contractors switching to more prefabricated construction,” Warren said. “It’s a paradigm shift for owners and engineers to allow that kind of in-house building. As an industry, I think we need to get there.”
Carpenter said in order for better conditions, the business has to be more about customer service.
“It feels like it is more of a commodity driven industry, but projects are about people and providing a service to the client,” Carpenter said. “I think, eventually what will happen, is that there will be enough flat tires to where the service and how you perform will come back to be what is the most important.”