Aiming to head off projected craft and management shortages and push contractors to boost workforce quality to compete for work, owners are launching a long-gestating rating tool that they want to become a key differentiator in contractor selection. The Contractor Workforce Development Assessment, which would grade firms based on 23 training components, will be deployed widely next year by the Construction Users Round Table.

At the group's convention in Orlando, Fla., last month, CURT officials said they want the new tool—in development since 2006, with input from contractor groups, unions and training entities—to be as important as safety ratings on owners' lists of "non-negotiable" contract selection criteria.

Don Whyte, a key developer of the metric for CURT who also is president of the National Center for Construction Education and Research, an open-shop craft training program, noted results from a CURT-sponsored September pilot test involving 22 union and non-union contractors and subs. He said that firms invested 1.15% of labor costs, on average, in workforce development, spending from $45 to $845 per employee. "We saw some contractors with tremendous training programs in place. But if only 10% are doing this, are you getting the benefit?" he asked attendees. Whyte said test participants, who had to document their responses, each spent up to 100 hours on the project.

The CURT tool rates contractors on workforce components that include "formal policies" and "top-down support" for craft skill training; required craft certifications; level of financial commitment; recruitment strategies; leadership training for "front-line managers"; programs for women and minorities, and client vetting of "management commitment" to training.

Eddie Clayton, a labor management executive at Alabama utility Southern Co., said the firm already is using some assessment questions to screen construction and maintenance contractors. "We still have some work to do" on [the rating] details, but owners need to embrace this," he said. Clayton said the rating would help owners better match contractors to a project's size and complexity. With workforce quality an industry problem for the last two decades, Clayton said, "we don't need a grace period" for the measure.