AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) released results from a national survey of U.S. contractors on Wednesday, revealing a snapshot of the state of the industry.
According to AGC, 88% of firms with open positions (85% of respondents) are struggling to fill those positions. The group notes that this result is uniform across respondents, regardless of size, work or union-status.
AGC Chief Economist Ken Simonson spoke on the findings during a press call Wednesday.
“These shortages are adding to the impacts of supply chain disruptions that have made it difficult for firms to get materials delivered on time and that are driving up the cost of those materials,” Simonson said. “Supply chain problems and labor shortages are making construction more expensive, undermining demand for certain types of projects.”
Half of survey respondents told AGC that they had projects canceled, postponed or scaled back due to cost increases, and 22% reported similar setbacks due to delays.
Specific to Texas, 53% of firms increased their workforce, but around 92% of firms said they faced difficulty filling open positions. The greatest demand reported was for basic laborers (69 firms), followed by heavy equipment operators (41 firms) and truck drivers (32 firms).
The main hiring difficulties for Texas contractors were lack of skills (70%), failed drug tests (35%) and lack of reliable transportation (29%).
“The biggest takeaway from this year’s Workforce Survey is how much the nation is failing to prepare future workers for high-paying careers infields like construction,” Simonson said. “In virtually every community in this country there are open construction positions that pay better than the average job and are vital to local economic growth.”
AGC leaders on the call pushed for an expansion of investment in education, as well as a path to citizenship for undocumented workers.
“The bottom line is we need to do a better job as a nation preparing future workers for the many high-paying career opportunities that exist in this – and many other – industries,” Simonson concluded.
Techno-optimism: AI and Robots on the Job Site
Industry-adjacent software company Autodesk collaborated with AGC in the survey, and was represented by Allison Scott, director of customer experience & industry advocacy.
Scott, a self-described “techno-optimist,” presented the possibility of AI and robotics filling the labor gap.
“Despite the continued challenges expressed by survey participants around Labor and supply chain issues, there are promising trends around digital skills, AI and robotics and diversity that point to a larger cultural shift and construction,” Scott said. “We see similar trends within our own community of construction process professionals using Autodesk tools; for instance, 41% of firms are boosting spending on training and development programs, 25% are enhancing their online training and 14% are using augmented or virtual reality technologies for their training programs as well.”
As for what work might be done by AI and robots, Scott said that it would be primarily repetitive and error-prone tasks, such as such as tying rebar and finishing drywall.
Scott said that the data shows an industry ready to welcome its for new robotic co-workers — 44% of respondents said that the technologies will have a positive impact in the industry, and 41% said they believe the technologies will make work safer.
“The labor shortage in the construction industry is becoming even more pressing as the current workforce retires…the industry is not attracting enough qualified people are growing the right skill sets,” Scott said. “Most of the jobs that I had in the industry did not previously exist when I first arrived. 20 more years, we’re gonna have even more roles that embrace and intertwine technology in ways that we cannot even fathom right now.”
What Every Generation says About the Next
AGC and Autodesk also brought in several contractors to give their opinions about the state of the industry.
Bill Ryan, a 28-year industry veteran with Dick Anderson Construction,
“We’ve all heard the same thing about [the current generation]: that they’re lazy, and they don’t want to work. But that’s what a newspaper article from 1920 said about the generation coming up,” Ryan said. “Every generation said that about every generation following. I think it’s more about finding out what their motivations are.
While Ryan notes that higher wages were important, he also stressed the importance of making sure workers keep their free time intact. He said that while he doesn’t have the full picture of motivating the younger generations, it’s an important goal for the industry.
“Our older folks, our foremen superintendents, they complain about it. [But] the reason there are so few of us in the room is because we survived the old way. We survived being berated, we survived being yelled at, we survived,” Ryan said. “That doesn’t work with the current generation. We have to find the right pieces and put them in the right places to motivate and find out what the motivations are for the younger generation, because it doesn’t work just to yell and scream and deride people any longer.”
But Hal Fuglevand, from construction materials and contracting services company Knife River, disagreed with Ryan’s outlook.
“I want to paint a pretty bleak picture here…I wish I could have a sense of optimism about the workforce that’s out there,” Fuglevand said. “It’s like a revolving door. It’s just people…just won’t show up. You know, so you got a big concrete pour scheduled for in the morning, you’re gonna need 10 guys to handle it. Well, three guys just don’t show up. They don’t call, nothing.”
On the technology side, Fuglevand noted how groundbreaking GPS was for the industry.
“If it had not come along when it did, I don’t know where we would be right now. But we depend on it all the time now,” Fuglevand said. “We’re looking forward to see what happens with AI and robotics, [we’re] going to really keep tuned into that.”