The year ahead is shrouded in an economic fog that fills many in the industry with dread. Markets are tumbling, and no one knows where the bottom of the abyss lies. The usual reaction of many firms to the periodic downturns that plague construction is to cut training programs and shed employees—the craft, professional and support people that make construction possible. This has proven shortsighted in the past. It has been only a few months since many companies were complaining about labor shortages and doing almost anything to attract, train and retain the best talent. Those that succumb to the temptation to take the easy way out this time are doomed to repeat the wasteful employment cycle again.
This market blowout is exceptionally severe. Construction unemployment already is 12.7%, double that of a year ago. There is hope that infrastructure construction will be a big part of economic stimulus packages. But once gone, laid-off employees may find other ways to make a living and not be available if hope becomes reality and construction calls again.
This time around, firms should be innovative. They should try job sharing (having more than one person share a full-time job), use temporary pay reductions for underemployed workers and start cross-training so a person can perform multiple tasks. Cutting workers loose should be a last resort.
Industry associations and labor unions can play a key role in helping members devise ways to survive the recession and remain in construction. So far, the silence has been stunning.