We continue to hear concerns about the shortage of skilled craft workers. The problem is not new nor is it unique to the U.S. To me, the causes and obvious solutions are illustrated in the following diagram.

Individual companies, national organizations and many labor unions have tried various recruiting efforts. Even with increased recruiting, retention remains a problem. Demographic studies show a major exodus of skilled craft workers after they reach their mid-30s.

Companies and organizations have introduced numerous innovations, such as onsite day care centers, major training and craft progression programs, multi-skilling/multi-crafting and guaranteed 2000 hours of work per year for selected workers. One company even gives its boiler tube welders highest priority in using the corporate jet.

Some efforts have been effective, such as improving safety. After decades of little change, the frequency of recordable incidents and lost workday cases has fallen by one-half over the past several years. The improvements have occurred because of deliberate and concerted efforts to apply technology, training, benchmarking and metrics, and even research to make them happen.

Why can’t we address the work force shortage in the same way? Is it possible that a step-change approach is needed? The diagram showing causes and solutions suggests the seeds for a new approach. If a worker makes more money and has a career path and an improved image, that worker will be more likely to remain in the industry and will justify additional training. But how do we start?

Let’s think of a two-tier work force strategy rather than our present approach. Tier II would have projects with fewer, but higher skilled and better utilized workers. These projects could address the true cause of poor productivity–administrative delays. Many studies show that at least 20% of the average worker’s time is spent waiting for materials, tools, equipment, information, etc. If we can reduce that waste by one-half, as we have done with accidents, productivity will actually increase by 25%. Training these elite Tier II workers in administrative skills, such as short-interval planning, scheduling, computer utilization, materials management and controls, can have a high payoff in reducing delays. Such an approach could justify higher worker pay, but would also result in lower project costs and better schedules, quality and safety.

What about projects that do not have enough Tier II workers? Those projects can use a Tier I approach, which applies the same principles to the craft supervisors. After all, a supervisor of a 10-person crew is responsible for a $1- million-per-year operation. No sane person would attempt to operate a million-dollar business without modern management techniques and information systems.

Recent surveys suggest that the work force is capable of an advanced approach. More than 80% of craft workers have finished high school. Craft workers also are familiar with computers, with about 60% using them at home. Most are willing to be trained in such administrative skills as materials management, CPM scheduling, CAD applications and control systems.

Some companies already are trying the Tier II strategy and others are trying the Tier I strategy. Metrics have been developed to measure the level of implementation for each strategy and to measure the level of construction success based on cost, schedule, quality and safety. It is likely that we will see improvements in the labor market and project results as we apply a radical, but measurable, approach.

Richard L. Tucker is the director
of the Center for Construction Industry Studies
at The University of Texas at Austin.