Industry Watch

Building up the Workforce

Industry initiatives and innovations to keep a steady and ready corps of skilled workers

By Kevyn Burger
Tue, 2017-05-16 12:21

If metro-area developers were to select a mascot to represent the region right now, a good case could be made for the crane. They can be spotted hovering over commercial, residential and public works projects in Minneapolis, St Paul and numerous suburbs.

“We’re in the middle of a nice boom that started in 2013,” says Ravi Norman, CEO of THOR Companies, a Minneapolis-based real estate management company; its subsidiary THOR Construction was a partner in the construction of US Bank Stadium.

“If you can’t thrive in this era, I don’t know that you ever will.”

The good news, though, puts the industry’s perennial challenge in the spotlight — managing the workforce as projects ebb and flow.

“In a boom, everything happens at once. We had the stadium and some major public works projects at the same time. That caused some constraints,” Norman says.

The industry has successfully rebuilt its numbers after the recession, when construction jobs contracted as financing dried up and developers became cautious about initiating new projects.

Construction workers are in high demand; according to a statistics compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Minnesota added 9,300 construction jobs across all sectors of the industry in 2016. That represents an 8% increase in construction jobs over the previous year.

“We’re at 100% employment right now,” says Peter Hilger, faculty director of the Construction and Facility Management degree program at the University of Minnesota. “Construction is always feast or famine, and we are feasting.”

Minnesota’s harsh winters had long been a cause of worker attrition, but keeping the skilled workforce busy in the cold months is easier than it once was, Hilger notes, and not because of climate change.

“From a seasonal aspect, we are becoming seamless. We’ve developed ways to protect the work and workers from the elements,” he says. “Masons do block and brick work all winter; they put up scaffolding with plastic sheeting for a protective barrier and run heaters in enclosures so they can continue to work.”

Hilger says the ingenious approach makes Minnesota construction sites the envy of other, warmer areas of the country, where it doesn’t make sense to invest in such cold weather protection.

“Because they don’t have the winters we do, they completely shut down when temperatures dip into the 20s,” he says. “We have figured it out.”

MANAGING THE DANCE

Construction managers have a lot in common with choreographers.

Instead of plotting the movement of dancers, though, they schedule subcontractors.

First to cross the stage are crews that handle foundation work, excavation and concrete. Then the framers, carpenters and electricians arrive on the scene. Cue the plumbing, roofing and HVAC crews. Then bring in the painters and teams that install flooring, finishes and more.

Whether large or small, a construction project can’t get too far ahead of itself; the work must be done in precise order. If one step of the sequence is off, the whole project backs up, to torture the metaphor, like dancers tripping over one another.

“There’s an incredible amount of coordination that goes on to put together a solid project schedule and then hit it every step of the way,” says Susan Denk, owner and general manager of White Crane Construction, a Minneapolis-based home remodeler.

The business Denk founded in 2002 is in growth mode; in the past year, it expanded its capacity by 30%. Denk anticipates $3.8 million in annual revenue for 2017.

In a hotter market, Denk sees more competition to secure the work of top subcontractors.

“Some of our trade partners have not been able to expand fast enough to keep up with the volume of work while meeting high quality standards,” she says. “We pick our trade partners very carefully and if they get in trouble too often, we can’t be afraid to say goodbye.”

She cites her relationship with a siding contractor who said yes to too many projects and was consistently delayed in finishing Denk’s work on schedule.

“He was a great guy but he left me hanging. He didn’t have the maturity to manage his business and at a certain point we said, enough,” she recalled. “It was the right thing to do but it was not fun.”

WORKFORCE SHORTAGES AHEAD? 

The biggest problem with managing the workers of the future is that there simply won’t be enough of them.

“The pipeline is at a trickle. We have a quickly aging workforce; these trades take a physical toll on the workers,” says Hilger. “We’re crying for replacements.”

That cry will only grow louder. The Department of Employment and Economic Development says Minnesota will need to add nearly 9,000 workers to the industry by 2024.

“It’s not just workers who carry the hammers,” Hilger notes. “We’ll need the people who bring the work and supervise them, the project managers and company leaders.”

Ravi Norman hopes innovation may help bridge the generational employment gap.

“We need to think about using robotics and other technology to extend the careers of people in our industry when their knees and backs start going,” he says. “That can help us hang on to their knowledge and skill during this transitional period.”

The outreach to incoming workers has gotten increasingly aggressive. The region’s construction companies, unions and colleges and technical institutes have launched multiple initiatives to encourage young adults to consider the good-paying careers in construction.

Norman wants that appeal to broaden. As CEO of one of the nation’s largest African-American-owned construction companies, he wants to see better recruiting of people of color.

“The demographic trend shows that’s where the population growth will be. If we are not in tune with them, we will not continue to thrive,” he explains. “We’re good at marketing our projects but not so good at marketing our industry to young people.”

It’s possible that unofficial mascot could provide some enticement.

“People see more cranes around town; they’ve watched the buildings going up and they’ve seen big, complex projects like the stadium in Minneapolis and the Capitol restoration in St. Paul,” Hilger says. “We hope they think, hmmm, pretty interesting. That could be fun.”