A record 62 cargo ships are waiting to dock at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach as of Sept. 27—stuck floating off the California coast amid a supply chain crunch that has impacted contractor bottom lines for more than a year.
“The amount of time it takes to get a shipment from China to the U.S. has more than doubled from 35 days to around 78 days,” says Marc Hanson, director of operations at engineer-procure-construct contractor CRB in Kansas City, Mo. “The ships are actually sitting at port for an average of eight days just waiting to be offloaded because there’s such a backlog of product trying to get to jobsites in the U.S.”
The construction supply chain is beset by the port situation, a slow reopening from the pandemic and everything from unseasonal cold weather in Texas to chemical plant fires and train derailments.
“I’ve told my team expect the unexpected and when you start project planning, that needs to be a topic of discussion for your traditional execution to be successful in this environment,” says Kelly Jeffcote, vice president of procurement at Burns & McDonnell, also in Kansas City. “You’ve got to be prepared for construction workarounds because you’re going to have deliveries that won’t be there on time. As hard as we try to make sure that they are, we’re probably going to hit a glitch. It requires a lot of out-of-the-box thinking.”
Price inflation and rapid deescalation have conspired to dash the best-laid plans of estimators since early 2020. Wood, steel, and plastic products have all seen commodity prices steadily rise but, in some cases, rapidly fall after wary contractors locked on prices early.
Both Hanson and Jeffcote said that cargo space on vessels now goes to the highest bidder, with contractors also relying on supplier relationships and non-traditional contracts with rail and truck shippers. They said it was becoming difficult to assuage clients’ concerns about future pricing, since there is really no end in sight to the problems plaguing their supply chains.
“Since we have design and construction in-house, we’re really trying to get owners to make early design decisions for things that we know are long lead items," says Greg Casper, CRB’s estimating manager. "Open-web joists right now, I’ve heard [delays of] eight months, 12 months, depending on the supplier.”
Estimators said the shifts in the market defy traditional commodity price movement. The market intelligence and economic experts they rely on had predicted an April or May return to a semblance of price normalcy that has not yet happened, with 2022 now their best hope.