Industry in Crisis: Part Two
Can unions help bridge the AEC skills gap with technology?
- There is an employee shortage and skills gap yielding 225,000 open jobs in construction
- Labor Unions are stepping up by modernizing training
- Tech companies are partnering with the trade unions and donating software
- Labor Unions are seeing an uptick in membership
A shortage of younger workers within the field, a shrinking existing workforce, and an influx of work opportunities have left the construction industry unbalanced. According to Slate’s Daniel Gross, there were 225,000 open construction jobs in June 2017, up a whopping 31% over the number from the previous year. The fact is that there is more work than there are workers to do it, raising premiums for contractors across the country, especially in fields like residential construction, which has yet to see a personnel rebound from the housing market’s bubble burst of ‘08. Higher build costs are then borne by the consumer, creating an imbalance between the amount of smaller start up projects being produced in favor of larger, more profitable projects, swaying the marketplace and creating even more of an uphill battle for smaller companies who lack the resources to tackle the larger jobs. Still, the industry is showing signs of a rebound, with some American labor unions leading the way.
Modernizing the Unions Through Training
Plagued by a lack of younger membership, labor unions are working hard to modernize their training efforts in the face of industry change. “When you think about it, except for using a projector in the classroom, we haven’t changed our training in 50-60 years. We need to change and adapt our processes for the current time,” explains Miguel Montaño, a member of the Pacific Northwest Carpenters Institute based out of Portland, Oregon. “We looked at what we were teaching, thinking that we need to be emulating what’s going on out in the workplace,” states Montaño. “Our training center should be steps ahead, so it can help improve the workplace. [Young workers need to see that] this is not their grandfather’s construction industry.”
The addition of jobsite technology training alongside traditional skills training seems to be making an impact on union trade workers.
Unions Explore Tech Partnerships to Expand Training
Unions are partnering with technology companies like Bluebeam, a leading developer of innovative technology solutions for the architectural, engineering and construction industries, to receive donated software and training. “We have seen how receptive the trades have been in embracing our technology and remain dedicated to partnering with skilled trade workers on a long term basis,” says Emily Heppard, Bluebeam Academic Program Manager, Communities. By donating software, companies like Bluebeam are getting a birds-eye view of the industry’s needs while fostering new opportunities for learning and understanding the latest in jobsite technology. Ron McGuire, of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association sees the value of this relationship and the impact of training with jobsite technology, having seen enough success with the initial Bluebeam donation to request software donations for 57 SMWIA training centers across the U.S. “If the contractors are using the technology, we need to be teaching our members with it,” he says. Many larger general contractors have their own FTP site to transfer data back and forth from the subs, architects and engineering firms. “General Contractors are using Revu and some are using Studio with the use of Studio as a file transfer,” explains Missouri-based electrician Mary Hood. “Many of the electrical general foremen and foremen are using Revu for markups and RFIs, which can be emailed to the project managers. Pre-fab shops are all using Bluebeam which makes their job a lot easier. Its paperwork done on the computer, but it consolidates work and it’s faster. Currently, journeymen can take night classes (one night of intense training) in Revu at Local #1.”
Technology Is the Key to Expanding Job Opportunities
As the industry continues to expand its use of digital practices such as VDC and BIM, digital solutions are becoming that much more essential on the jobsite. Mary Hood, the aforementioned 28-year electrician (with 35 years in the field overall), is a great example of a trade expert finding new life on the jobsite through technology. As an integral part of IBEW Local #1, based out of St. Louis, MO (one of the largest IBEW training centers in the country, and a leader for training curriculum development in the IBEW), Mary has spent years debunking the myth that trades don’t use tech. “Journeymen electricians have to go out in the field with computers and mark up drawings using Revu. It is important to us to train in Bluebeam [Revu] mainly due to the number of electrical contractors in this area who use it,” she says. After working as an electrician for almost three decades, Mary got a degree in applied science/CAD, and received a permanent position at the same company that she worked for previously as an electrician. “I am hopeful that this [software donation and training] will be the start of something big for the St. Louis trades,” says Mary. “Not just ours, but all of them, since Building Information Modeling is really taking off here, even for the smaller contractors.”
Unions Are Seeing New Membership
All of this energy and attention being focused on technology may have the additional benefit of attracting younger workers to the building trades. “Older craftsman lead the work in the field, but their tech skills are sometimes not the greatest. The younger ones are gravitating toward technology, says Montaño. “You didn’t hear about technology in trades 20 years ago,” states SMWIA’s Ron McGuire of the SMWIA International Training Institute. “If [unions] don’t grab tech and embrace it and be proactive, they’ll be left behind. It helps them get younger people interested.” Montaño adds his perspective, “They were born with new tech. and they are already used to receiving info that way. We need to adapt to them; not other way around. Apprentices get a kick out of using new tech.”
American labor unions are actually showing some signs of an increase in membership within the U.S. private construction workforce. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 13.9% of workers were union members in 2017, up from 13.2% in 2016. While that may sound like an insignificant increase, it adds up to 99,000 new members from the previous year.
Is this just a brief blip on a long downward trend, or is this the beginning of an actual reversal in declining union membership? Union leaders hope it’s the latter, and they’re doing everything they can think of to remain relevant in the 21st century. From attracting new workers to helping older workers prepare for the jobs of the future, technology training has an important role to play, and unions are increasingly taking the lead. As AEC fights to get through tough times, efforts like these can at least be steps in the right direction as the construction industry works to tackle the skills gap.