“It’s Not My Job”

Dr Thomas C Schleifer

The legendary comedian Freddy Prinze began every episode of Chico and the Man with his iconic – “It’s not my job.” He, of course, was making fun of the stereotypical employee whose first impulse is to pass the buck. Lately, during discussions with contractors around the country (almost daily these days) about the shortage of skilled labor, I find most of their replies to be, “It’s not my job.” 

  • Construction Managers and some general contractors tell me they leave labor issues to the sub-contractors. “That’s what they’re hired for. They supply the skilled labor, and we supply the financing, design, and supervision.”
  • Smaller sub-contractors have a little different rendition of “It’s not my job.” It sounds like, “It’s not my problem.” Small subs are betting they can keep going with the loyal tradesmen that make up their crews. They are not looking too far down the road or worrying about industry trends like baby boomer retirement. Many rely on family members and friends of friends. They poach workers from one another here and there and it looks like, in their minds, it is not an industry wide problem. It’s business as usual. 
  • Then you have the med-size and larger contractors. They’re singing a little different tune that sounds like, “It’s not my fault.” Their first impulse seems to be to look for someone to blame for “this mess we’ve gotten ourselves into”. Some pass the buck to the “entitled younger generations”, others cite the easy money “government dole”, still others blame competitors for “stealing” their tradesmen, and some think it’s the government’s ineffective immigration policies. And they all blame COVID-19. However, it really doesn’t matter who’s to blame. Mid-size and larger contractors are feeling the pinch. They are struggling to man the jobs they’re currently working while aggressively poaching workers from one another–bidding up wages. Many are concerned about taking on more work because they’re not sure they can staff it. In other words, this shortage of skilled labor is falling squarely on their shoulders.

We all see the statistics on the shortage of skilled labor, but no one is ready to take ownership of the problem –“It’s not my job.” This response is normal when no one has a solution. But a glance at your work-in-progress reports and progress schedules will tell you that, not only is the problem already here, but unless we figure out what to do it will only get worse. What can we do? 

A Paradigm Shift

It is everyone’s job to recognize that the construction industry is going through a paradigm shift. After World War II we were eager to turn our war-time industrial capacity to the task of building our homeland. With a ready supply of returning veterans, European refugee craftsmen, and skilled workers released from wartime production, an abundant labor force went to work frantically building an interstate highway system, new suburban housing developments, and the educational and medical infrastructure our victorious country felt it deserved. Labor unions quickly grew out of the need to organize this diverse labor force and eventually supplied much of the construction industry with skilled craftsmen for 50 years. 

But now we are 75 years down the road and experiencing a dramatic workforce paradigm shift.

  • The post-World War II generations have aged out of the workforce.
  • The union movement has been eroded and struggles to provide a steady supply of skilled tradesmen to the construction industry.
  • Our national sympathies have become protective and provincial and no longer welcome the immigrants that populated and built this country.
  • The growth of a white collar bureaucratic middle class has captured the imagination of our youth. The construction trades that once were the envy of our labor force are no longer attractive professional choices.

We Need to Wake Up

Construction is experiencing a paradigm shift. We are not struggling with a temporary problem caused by the pandemic. Our industry has gradually changed in its ability to do business. Society’s need for our services will continue to expand while our capacity to provide construction services will continue to shrink. All our thinking must begin with that fact. 

We must recognize that this paradigm shift will require an industry-wide awakening and a unified effort to bend the arc of history. Together we must begin to lobby for more effective immigration policy, invest in new labor-saving technologies, remake our image in the eyes of the next generation of workers, and invest in education and training. 

I call upon the leadership of our various trade and industry organizations, university professors, and surety executives to wake our industry up to the new world of 21st century construction. We are no longer the industry of our fathers and grandfathers, and we will not prosper if we do not understand what that entails. There is no easy fix for our labor shortage. But there is a fix in a collective and determined effort.

Tune in next week for planning in the post-COVID economy.

Find additional information on topics discussed here in the book The Secretes To Construction Business Success, published by Routledge  https://bit.ly/3G9ornf.

For a deeper look into labor and labor issues, read more here: LABOR

For a broader view into the employee retention, read more here: RETENTION

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