10-13-00 -- Dr. Roger W. Liska, the chairman of the Department of Construction Science and Management at Clemson University, was speaking at the Associated Builders and Contractors’ 2000 Electrical Contractors Conference when he said that common attributes are evident among contractors who successfully attract and retain workers, but some of his remarks may have relevance for NECA-member contractors -- or, at least, provide some insights into how the non-union sector is approaching the problem of skilled workforce shortages. Here’s a recap of his presentation.
Attraction and retention of competent workers is a key issue n a labor market where shortages of qualified craft workers results in contractors outbidding each other for workers and leads to higher project turnover rates. Liska mentioned studies which showed that turnover among construction workers can have a direct impact upon a company’s financial performance. Every 10 percent change in turnover rates, he noted, results in a 2.5 percent increase in overall labor costs. By contrast, he noted, companies that have an overall rate of retention of 80 percent or higher realize higher profits, complete projects ahead of schedule, and experience better project safety.
Suggested Retention Strategies
Among contractors with retention rates of 80 percent or better of their employees, there are common attributes in what they do to attract craft workers. Among them, Liska said, are:
• Maintaining a safe workplace environment;
• Recruiting at trade shows, high schools, and community colleges;
• Pursuing workers who have experienced a layoff at other projects;
• Working with other contractors for hiring;
• Working outside of project;
• Using written tests and performance evaluations;
• Conducting supervisor human relations training;
• Having a documented wage progression that is tied to skills;
• Offering long-term preferential treatment to tenured workers (“Such a practice is not favoritism,” he noted, but rather an incentive to retain younger workers who want a menu of benefits);
• Informing employees of a project’s progress (“The new generation of younger workers,” he said, “wants to be involved in that progress. ... Make sure a supervisor sits down and informs them.”); and
• Promoting the “family side” of construction, offering family or company picnics. (“Workers like that; they feel less like a commodity,” Liska said).
Industry Image Problem
The construction industry suffers from an image problem, according to Liska. A survey of 1,800 craft workers, he said, revealed that about 70 percent do not want their children to become craft workers in their footsteps.
Among the reasons why workers leave the industry, he noted, are: poor competitive pay and benefits; workers who are looking for job security through a permanent job; poor safety; poor treatment (especially by a supervisor); and, poor working conditions.
Average across-the-board wages and benefits, he noted, in the period from 1993-97 have lagged behind both the Consumer Price Index and wages in the manufacturing sector. A way to address that problem, he said, is to reduce turnover by finding out what the competition is paying - information that is available through local chambers of commerce or government entities.
Job security among workers poses a problem, he said, particularly in lines where work may be seasonal in nature. How, for example, can road workers in northern Michigan be kept employed when winter weather is too cold to lay asphalt? An answer, Liska suggested, rests in what he called “multiskilling”— getting workers to do other types of related work. The benefits to such a program, he said, include more effective utilization of existing workforce, improved employment opportunities, labor cost savings, and reduced total installed costs.
”Humongous” Changes Anticipated
Changes in workforce will be “humongous” in the next 20-40 years, Liska said, creating new pressures on workforce recruitment and retention.
First, slow population growth and the retirement of “baby boomers” will ensure that workforce will grow more slowly, he said. The actual growth rate will depend on the extent of immigration and the labor force participation of men and women, especially older ones, he noted.
Also, as “baby boomers” age, they will want to keep working, and those involved in tedious and physically demanding work will want to retire, Liska told the group. In addition, the population and workforce will continue to become gradually more ethnically diverse, he said.
Diversification by gender also will continue— the workforce will consist of 50 percent women by 2020, Liska said. This becomes important, he noted, in contractors having work that women can perform.
If immigration policy remains unchanged, immigration will constitute an increasing share of the workforce, and may need various levels of training in our increasing technological society, he noted.