Thomas C Schleifer, Ph.D.
When Brady left the Patriots, that was a game changer. When Mahomes went to the Chiefs, that was a game changer. When the baby boomers retired from construction, that was a game changer. Let’s face it. The baby boomers built modern America and the construction industry along with it. Without them, we’ve got a whole new ballgame.
The Boomer Legacy
- After World War II, demand for housing exploded in the U.S., driven by the thriving postwar economy, the Baby Boom, the influx of immigrants, and the G.I. Bill. For the first time, production techniques used in other industries were applied to home-building, with one builder creating 30 homes per day.
- At the same time, the construction industry was becoming a vital lifeline for immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Italy and Asia, and still today 2.2 million construction workers are foreign born.
- The housing boom led to the emergence of the suburbs and the highways that support them. Construction began on the U.S. interstate highway system after the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.
- The introduction of steel girders by Bessemer Steel combined with the advancements in mechanized construction equipment and Elisha Otis’ safer design for elevators ushered in the age of skyscrapers in the early 20th century in Chicago and New York. During this period, contractors and engineers also devised methods to improve construction costs and scheduling to make construction more efficient.
Not My Job
- The baby boomers, (the children of the Greatest Generation who survived the Great Depression and defeated the Nazis in World War II) took up the building of America after the war and gradually created the most affluent middle-class society the world has ever seen.
- Their success, however, had a mixed legacy. Their children (Gens X,Y,Z, and Millennials) enjoyed the affluence their parents had created but from their more comfortable perch some looked down on the blue-collar toil of the building trades. Many of them saw themselves as white collar management and avoided taking up the pick and shovel. In other words, as the baby boomers have aged out and retired from construction trades there are fewer in line to take their place.
- At the same time, the immigrants who populated the construction industry with skilled masons, carpenters, etc. were becoming less likely to be welcomed into the country with open arms. The recent massive migration from south of our boarders has frightened our country and made it politically expedient to resist immigration and demand new quotas limiting the number of immigrants from all points of departure.
Ladies and Gentlemen: “The departure of the baby boomer generation from construction is a game changer. We are no longer the career opportunity for America’s middle class and no longer enjoy the ample supply of labor that fueled our success. We are in a new business; we just haven’t fully realized it yet. Elvis has left the building.”
The Buddha says:
“To resist what already is, is the main source of human suffering.”
Unfortunately, most construction professionals are resisting the industry’s shortage of skilled labor and causing ourselves more suffering.
- We’re poaching employees from competitors with elevated pay rates forcing competitors to respond in kind. This is causing an inflationary wage spiral that is already eating into marginal profits and failing to add even one worker to the shrunken labor pool.
- We are taking on more work thinking we can pass the labor problem down to our subs. The subs are equally short workers and cannot perform up to standard causing the entire job to slow down and end up in dispute.
- In a mad scramble to populate jobs already underway, subs are being forced to replace retiring qualified skilled labor with less qualified workers damaging both productivity and morale. Jobs are having trouble passing inspection and many of the remaining skilled workers are slowing down to match the more leisurely pace of the semi-skilled.
Kubler-Ross Stages of Grief
The five stages of grief model describes a series of emotions experienced by people who are grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. When dealing with the shortage of skilled labor construction professionals find ourselves at some stage on this Kubler-Ross scale. Too few are at “acceptance”. Most are still in “denial”, and many are “bargaining” with the trend by poaching workers from one another. No solution will begin to emerge until we all eventually get to the acceptance stage. Only then can we begin to adapt to, rather than resist, this “new” smaller labor pool that will compel us to have to find ways to execute the construction services we sell to the marketplace.
Next week we will begin to analyze what adaptation to a “new-sized” labor pool might look like and review the adaptions that some of our colleagues have already initiated.
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