Tom Sawyer/ENR
Owner executives discuss solutions for contractors and clients to address worker shortages.

Construction leaders met in early June with sharpened determination to resolve two key challenges facing the industry today: workforce shortages and reconstruction of hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. They left with a new road map and tools to help them.

The forum, convened by ENR, McGraw-Hill Construction and the Construction Users Roundtable (CURT), drew more than 300 owners, contractors and other industry leaders to address workforce issues and exchange strategies for both short-term and long- range solutions. Labor analysts said documenting employment gaps helps quantify why investment is needed for workforce development. Officials of industry companies, unions, trade associations and labor brokering firms shared examples of innovative training and management programs that are removing traditional barriers. Voices came from all sides.

The co-chairs of CURT’s workforce committee—Gerald Sprentall, an Intel Corp. construction manager, and Steve Mongiardo, senior director of global engineering services at Merck & Co. Inc.—emphasized that its mission is to ensure that owners have enough skilled construction professionals to build facilities with best-in-class productivity at competitive costs.

While some owners noted a growing trend in facility modularization, others emphasized their dependence on a sufficiently staffed and trained U.S. workforce. “We’re not running offshore,” said Mark Field, Shell Oil Co. global category manager. Attendees noted, however, the need for both owners and contractors to elevate workforce development to the same priority level as safety in past years.

“Contractors can’t do it themselves; owner investment is required,” said James B. Porter Jr., vice president and chief engineer of DuPont Co. “If owners put the language into the contracts that they will only hire subcontractors with fully developed training programs, it will happen,” says Tim Horst, president of Becon Construction Co. Inc.

Owners want to promote programs such as the Southeast Manpower Tripartite Alliance, a group of owners, firms and unions in a region of booming growth that has pooled project data to forecast workforce needs and staggered project starts to avoid draining the labor pool.

Challenges are not just a U.S. problem. George Gritziotis, executive director of Canada’s Construction Sector Council, said its workforce is suffering from a “double whammy” of an aging workforce and a cross-border drain. The group is gathering detailed forecast data not only on planned projects, but also on the character of the current and upcoming workforce.

Attendees, polled toward the end of the daylong forum, were clearly being pinched by the issue: About 95% said they were concerned about craft labor shortages in the future, 86% said they were experiencing shortages on current projects, and 85% said gaps are driving costs up, with 18% noting increases of as much as 25%. Eighty-eight percent said more data to define the problem would help, and 92% said they would contribute data about their projects to help the industry define its needs.

New Orleans will need plenty of help.   “This will be the largest jobsite in the world,” said Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D). He predicts up to $100 billion of construction over the next 10 years.