A worker works inside a pipe on a pipeline construction

Labor Shortage Productivity: How Trade Contractors Get Work Done With Fewer People

A labor shortage may be a new problem in many industries, but U.S. construction companies have been navigating this and labor shortage productivity for years.

“Even with more money to repair rundown roads and build new bridges, worker shortages loom over an industry already strapped for people,” NPR’s Mary Yang reported in April. “And, with fewer workers, projects could take longer to complete, becoming more expensive as they drag on.”

The thing that distinguishes some construction companies from others is the operational adjustments they make to shore up productivity in the face of difficult hiring markets.

Below, we will take a look at what some of those adjustments are.

But first, it’s important to see how labor shortages impact — and, maybe more to the point, don’t impact — productivity.

The Big Picture: Labor Shortage Productivity

Way back in 2018, CNBC described how construction companies were “grappling with an aging workforce, and a gender and skilled-labor gap.” In other words, this isn’t a post-pandemic issue necessarily, or a Great Resignation issue. Trade contractors were struggling to hire before COVID.

Around the same time, The Economist was reporting that American construction was significantly less productive than it had been 40 years prior, and that new efficiencies were necessary for the sector to keep pace.

So, what happened? Did plumbers and architects and electricians and construction project managers all start slacking off somewhere around 1970?

Far from it. Research from the Dutch bank ING shows a similar trend across Europe. Maurice van Sante, ING’s senior economist for the construction and team lead sectors, argues that there are economic and logistical challenges unique to construction companies.

“Heavy machinery is difficult to move, conditions differ at every location and regulations vary from country to country,” he writes. “Flexibility is thus important, and construction firms retain this flexibility by doing a lot of work manually.”

That’s why the innovations in manufacturing in the 80s and 90s, for example, sent that sector off on a different trajectory. You can’t implement a Kanban scheduling system at a construction site.

What you can do, though, is get your teams connected digitally. It’s no coincidence that Dutch construction workers are both among the most digitally connected construction workers in Europe, as van Sante notes, and among the most productive.

Construction companies have been doing more with less for generations. But there was a ceiling on what “more” could mean because so much of the work had to be done manually. It’s taken relatively recent technologies like cloud infrastructures to lift that ceiling.

That goes a long way toward explaining why so many more trade construction companies are thriving, proportionally, than a generation ago.

Engineer and architect with hard hats and safety vests on major construction site working on computer tablet; labor shortage productivity concept

How to Boost Construction Site Productivity Today

So, what can construction companies do right now to leverage these new sources of productivity? 

Here are four tips:

Engage and Upskill the Teams You Have

Managing a team of trade construction professionals comes with a major benefit: Tradespeople take a lot of pride in their work. 

Still, certain managerial missteps can make those folks feel undervalued, the team at Industrial Skilled Trades writes. Those can include having someone show up on a job site to find a different job than they’d been promised, or having someone show up day after day to take on the worst assignments.

Instead, talent retention needs to focus on things like upskilling team members (field and office), and getting them the tools they need to work most effectively.

Reimagine How You Manage Work

Finding new efficiencies means “changes to project designs and fresh thinking about when, where, and how work is done,” McKinsey researchers Garo Hovnanian, Ryan Luby and Shannon Peloquin write. 

“Improvements in productivity occur long before work starts on the ground. They include rigorous control of project scope, design simplification, and standardization. 

“Increasing the use of off-site and modular construction, for example, could allow projects to capture multiple benefits, including accelerated design cycles; the greater productivity associated with industrialized, factory floor manufacturing techniques; automation; and less time spent on site.”

Invest in the Right Tools for the Work You’re Doing

Something we wrote in a post about recession-proofing your construction business applies here, too: Helping your company through any kind of lean time means getting people tools — digital or otherwise — that are right-sized for the job at hand.

You can do this by:

  • Sketching out your team’s normal operations — tasks, responsibilities, workflows — and imagining which steps would benefit from digitization.
  • Mapping those steps onto specific features of any software you’re considering.
  • Ensuring the new software you buy is easy to use. You’ll lose efficiency gains by investing in software your team struggles to use.
Organize Your Construction Project Data

Paper records and file cabinets won’t do. Neither will having one office computer that stores all of your construction project data.

Your team needs a centralized, cloud-native repository for that data. That way, anyone with access can retrieve a document as needed and from wherever they are — the work site, the truck, the office, at home. This system should also let your field teams capture absolutely everything they need to make their reports meaningful.

Learn More

Cloud-based tools are giving construction businesses the productive capacities to thrive in a world where hiring will be difficult for the foreseeable future.

To learn more about how eSUB can boost your own team’s productivity, schedule a demo today.

Images used under license from Shutterstock.com.