Construction Workers Work Longer Hours Due to the Skilled Labor Shortage
By Danielle Higley, Construction Executive
The construction industry is growing at a slower rate than in years past, contributing to the current shortage of skilled laborers. As more and more companies struggle to find qualified employees to fill the ranks, current workers are taking on longer hours. Despite the fact that construction workers are putting in increased hours per person, productivity has continued to wane, decreasing by half since the 1960s.
If it feels like construction workers have been working longer hours lately, that’s probably because they have. According to timesheet data recorded by 12,000 U.S. construction companies from TSheets by QuickBooks, construction workers put in more hours per person in 2017 than in recent years.
A number of factors have contributed to this trend—most notably, the current shortage of skilled construction workers. Following are some of the reasons behind the shortage and how the data might be interpreted to better understand the drop in construction productivity.
A SHORTAGE OF SKILLED LABORERS
There currently are not enough highly skilled workers to meet demand. This shortage has been felt nationwide but most heavily in states affected by recent disasters. These include Florida, Texas and California where there simply aren’t enough workers to rebuild after hurricanes and wildfires.
The numbers vary from source to source, but it’s safe to say more than 300,000 long-tenured construction workers lost their jobs in the recession. More than 800,000 additional non-long-tenured workers were also displaced, contributing to a construction unemployment rate of more than 27 percent. In post-recession years, recovery has been visible, but many workers have chosen to break ties with their previous career.
The Associated General Contractors of America conducted a survey of 1,600 construction companies. Despite the fact that 55 percent increased pay rates for hourly craft employees and 46 percent increased pay for salaried employees, 41 percent say they’re struggling to fill office and field positions. A large portion of employers (30 percent to 45 percent) expect this difficulty to continue into the next 12 months.
GETTING YOUNG PEOPLE BACK INTO CONSTRUCTION
According to The Wall Street Journal, fewer young people are getting into construction-related fields. Today, the average construction worker is older than the average U.S. employee by 5.5 months.
To combat this, some states, including Colorado, are launching initiatives to train more plumbers, electricians, and carpenters right out of high school. Supporters argue that such initiatives kill two birds with one stone: Construction companies get an influx of able bodies with the training to succeed, and young people have the option of pursuing a potentially high-paying job straight out of high school that doesn’t require a college degree (or college debt).
But getting young people excited about construction training means acknowledging and overcoming a variety of hurdles, including the perception that construction workers make little money given the seasonal nature of the work, the lack of respect for trade schools versus traditional college and past generations’ concerns that construction workers are most at risk for layoffs during bad economic times.
THE PROOF IS IN THE DATA
Skilled individuals are joining the workforce at a slower pace than in years past and, as studies show, the lack of able bodies is putting pressure on workers currently in the field. According to timesheet data from TSheets, trends in construction range from how many new hires were added over the past three years to how many overtime hours were logged per year. Here are more of TSheets’ findings.
Workers in 2017 put in an average of 39.6 hours per week. In comparison, workers put in an average of 38.4 hours per week in 2015. Summer hours went up as well, with the average construction worker tracking 40.5 hours from June through the end of August in 2017. That number was 39.8 hours per week in 2015.
By contrast, overtime has remained fairly constant. The number of people getting overtime has stayed right around 1 percent—as it has the last three years—and the number of hours being worked by this 1 percent has hovered between 9.6 and 10.2 hours a week.
While the United States is arguably one of the most successful nations in the world, known for its innovation and work ethic, productivity levels in construction have been decreasing at an alarming rate since the 1960s. Some reports, including this one by The Economist, show the rate of productivity has decreased by half over the last five decades.
Multiple studies, including one by Marianna Virtanen of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, cited in a Harvard Business Review article, show productivity is not in direct proportion to the number of hours worked. In fact, working too many hours can have negative effects on productivity, including stress, health problems, depression, impaired memory and heart disease. Studies have shown it’s much harder to make good judgment calls when people are overworked.
Employers also benefit from not overworking employees. Workers who put in too many hours may show signs of “absenteeism [and] turnover” and may also contribute to a company’s “rising health insurance costs.”
Consider that while the average working hours for construction workers nationwide may be 39.6 hours a week, an average needs high and low numbers. For every part-time worker putting in 30 hours, there’s someone working 50. Likewise, the average number of overtime hours is just under 10 percent, suggesting that some workers may be putting in closer to 15 or 18 hours of overtime on top of the typical work week.
FUTURE FOCUS TO MEET FUTURE NEED
Construction workers are more in demand than ever before. Beyond normal infrastructure upkeep, there’s a recurring need for skilled contractors and builders to take on recovery efforts in states hit hard by recent disasters. What’s more, the country is seeing new growth, and with it, a need for both residential and industrial construction. To meet demand, states and construction companies will need to work together to make the industry more productive and more appealing to young people. Without these initiatives working hand in hand, workers will continue to put in longer hours to compensate—a decision that may lead to more harm than good for an industry already struggling to compete for able bodies.