By Ben Wilhelm, President, Carolinas

Construction labor is in short supply for the foreseeable future. Sixty-three percent (63%) of NC general contractors rate the supply pipeline for construction labor as poor. Nationwide, trade labor wages have ballooned 29% from three years ago, yet active metros such as Charlotte and Raleigh cannot find adequate labor to complete assignments. For example, according to Yardi Matrix, a four-year rolling average on completion of multi-family projects has increased an average of 5.5 months as of the third quarter of 2017. Much of that delay is due to labor shortage. Our biggest challenge is finding good people at every level of our supply chain to complete work.

Where is the Motivation?

A recent article by John McManus in Builder cites the research of Rose Quint of the National Association of Home Builders and a study of 18 to 25 year old adult’s interest in construction trades. She notes that 74% of this sample knows their primary career interest; only 3% are interested in construction trades. Physical demand and perceived difficulty of work are the two primary reasons young adults report for not considering construction trades as a career. True…construction is demanding on the body, and it certainly can be difficult. However, it is amazing to see the fruits of your labor and the tangible accomplishment of work with your own hands and brainpower. Thomas Edison said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” What a great embodiment of the construction industry. If intrinsic motivation doesn’t motivate, how about money?

Show Me the Money

Economic mobility and the widening gap between the haves and have-nots is one of the most important social concerns of our time. Hence, I looked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics and occupations that do not require a four-year degree. To no surprise, construction trades by and large exceed that of other trades and service oriented jobs. The average trade laborer wage is $19.44/hour, whereas a recreation worker makes $13.09/hour, nearly 50% more per hour! Both may or may not have forms of difficulty, but if we are talking about a living wage, laborer wins easily. According to Living Wage Calculator from MIT, the living wage in North Carolina for an adult is $11.36 and $23.80 for an adult with one child. Construction is a path to offer people a career with financial rewards that are absent in service and other trade related career fields. Wages are higher and demand is greater. The construction industry labor supply is still woefully short of where it was before the Great Recession. Please come back!

A Path Forward

Money only goes so far. If young people perceive the trades to be too difficult and physically demanding, it is essential to reframe the argument. Construction work is challenging and rewarding in many ways. It is constructive, creative, innovative, and results are highly tangible.

Figure 1:

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi authored Flow in 1990, which illustrated the important balance between skill competence and degree of difficulty. He proposed the idea that people who find the balance get lost in “flow” for their work, whereby time is irrelevant because you are so consumed with the intense interest and challenge in your work. Many jobs are monotonous, routine, and boring, while construction is anything but. How can construction tap into a young adult’s sense for drive and accomplishment in making construction cool again? Consistent with Csikszentmihalyi, challenging young people to experience flow by working on an assignment with great challenge, perspiration, and rewarding results makes the difference in drawing people to our industry.

We hire several interns every summer and rarely do we hear, “I was bored.” More likely, we hear, “I learned a ton about building…I loved the challenge…I am excited to be in construction.” In many respects, we need to get young people to try construction, encourage high school guidance counselors to introduce construction as a viable career option, and mentors need to advocate for young people to experience the world of building in order to recruit more to the industry. There is a huge demand for more people at all levels of construction, but we most desperately need young people to choose the trades over the service sector and side-gigs.


The Messenger Newsletter | March 2018 | Shiel Sexton Carolinas