Now that the Midwest is participating more fully in the nation's economic recovery, regional builders are more immersed in a challenge confronting builders nationwide: labor shortages. A recent AGC study indicates 2 million industry workers lost jobs during the nation's economic downturn, many of whom subsequently secured employment in oil, gas and trucking. Although shortages are most acute in the Southeast, where 86% of contractors indicated difficulty locating qualified workers, it is followed by the Midwest, where 82% of contractors indicated similar difficulties. Due to prolonged economic weakness in the Midwest, "a disproportionate number of workers left the region or the industry," says Simonson. AGC recommends increased funding for vocational education and construction-focused schools, though Simonson says regional players ultimately may need to increase investment in prefabricated systems and labor-saving equipment in order to bridge the labor gap. Basu foresees a gap of another kind. "There will be winners and losers," he says. "The industry runs on slim margins, and firms that have performed most profitably will win the competition for skilled labor on the basis of pay," he says.
Plenty of new projects and opportunities are brewing in old Milwaukee
With all eyes on Chicago, where construction is surging, industry observers may be overlooking a boom of comparable magnitude farther up Lake Michigan's shoreline. Milwaukee has been primed for growth for some time, the beneficiary of $2.6 billion in public and private development over the past decade. Today, a handful of projects under way account for more than another $2 billion. Milwaukee's Zoo Interchange upgrade, begun last year, is valued at $1.71 billion; the half-completed Hoan Bridge upgrade at $270 million; and Northwestern Mutual Headquarters, begun in August, at $450 million. More—much more—is proposed, planned or in the pipeline, including a 2.5-mile streetcar line, a sports arena for the National Basketball Association's Milwaukee Bucks; a new downtown transit center; and the Couture, a 44-story apartment tower sited on Milwaukee's lakefront. "To some extent, Wisconsin and metro Milwaukee have emerged as a low-cost alternative to Illinois, particularly northern Illinois," says Basu. "Like Chicago, Milwaukee has great museums, great dining and a great lakefront."
Chicago-based engineer is up and running on a low carbon emissions diet
Even its acronym—PEP—suggests that PositivEnergy Practice, a Chicago-based enterprise committed to environmentally responsible design, has energy to spare, whether executing projects worldwide or mapping a sustainable future for its hometown. The five-year-old firm, launched by Chicago's Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, prefers a broad canvas, having leveraged a "decarbonization plan" AS&GG developed for the city of Chicago to map similar blueprints for other cities. The data and modeling driven firm likewise has parlayed its expertise in environmental design to engage in other enterprises shaping the urban environment. "We're working with clients to evaluate all the vital signs, from food deserts to traffic flow to new land uses to zoning," says firm president John Tolva. "Buildings no longer are regarded as self-contained entities, but part of a larger fabric."