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Reports from the Field: Subtle Shifts Civil Contractors Can Pursue to Combat the Labor Shortage


By Bridget Wandelt and Luke Sherry, from FMI

It’s been widely reported that the construction industry is increasingly challenged by a labor shortage. Construction business owners – faced with rising labor costs, quality issues and expanding project schedules – have seemingly few options. Many observers have noted the need for revolutionary steps to transform the construction process and reduce the dependence on labor, such as prefabrication and robots. However, we’ve uncovered subtle shifts that forward-thinking civil contractors are taking right now to achieve labor savings, providing them a competitive advantage.

One example of a subtle shift is the case of the front-discharge ready mix concrete truck. With an upfront cost approximately 20 percent more than a conventional rear-discharge truck, a shorter life span and additional maintenance costs, it doesn’t at first appear to have a return on investment. However, the front-discharge vehicles eliminate the need for an on-site laborer to guide the pour. Owners and contractors offered the chance to reduce their labor requirements quickly switch to ready mix providers offering front-discharge trucks. When leading ready mix producers introduced front-discharge trucks to the Nashville market in the 1990s, front discharge became nearly universal within 10 years.

More than 20 years after the introduction and acceptance of the front-discharge mixer, equipment manufacturers have introduced the next generation of ready-mix concrete truck – remote-controlled, rear-discharge vehicles. As noted by Trevor Thielbar and Derek Leggett of Kimble Mixer Company, “The remote-controlled, rear-discharge mixer saves manpower at the pour, but adds less than 10 percent of the additional investment typical of a rear-discharge mixer,” compared to the 20 percent additional upfront investment for a front-discharge mixer.

Similarly, geotechnical contractors have adopted fixed-mast rigs for driving piles. Compared to the traditional crane, these rigs represent a substantial investment, can only be used for piling on certain types of sites, and have fewer applications outside of sheet piling. However, such rigs make up for their greater cost with greater production using less labor. While crane-based pile driving typically requires a five-person crew, fixed-mast rigs eliminate the need for a power-pack operator and at least one pile hand, resulting in a three- to four-person team. When accounting for fuel and equipment rental costs in addition to labor, FMI estimates that contractors driving piles with a rig can save nearly 20 percent of total operating costs while simultaneously increasing productivity up to 25 percent.

The construction industry cannot wait for a revolutionary solution to the labor shortage crisis. Construction industry participants, whether they are civil contractors, materials providers or equipment manufacturers, who aggressively seek out subtle shifts to reduce their dependence on labor will capture a competitive advantage in the medium-term and long-term.

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