Build Up a Diverse Workforce in Construction

It only takes a few leaders to champion change and make diversity commonplace in jobsite culture so construction can be a safer place for more people to work hard, feel valued and build meaningful careers.
By Nancy Novak
July 20, 2021

Declining unemployment, increased spending and rising consumer sentiment all suggest continued strong growth in construction.

Yet many construction firms are struggling to fill salaried and hourly craft positions and anticipate labor shortages to be the biggest hurdle they face in the coming year.

Between the 2008 recession, the 2020 pandemic and natural attrition in the intervening years, the construction industry is hurting for workers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics projects that nearly half (41%) of the construction industry workforce will retire by 2031. The situation is urgent.

Strategies to Meet Labor Demands

The construction industry won’t be able to take advantage of growing demand without creative solutions to the workforce shortages. So can the industry stem the tide of attrition? How can it restock the talent pool and ensure a full bench of capable tradespeople on standby to support future growth? Here are a few strategies for consideration.

1. Leverage technology to work smarter

Technology can help contractors advance projects with safety and efficiency. There are a lot of tools out there to help crews and managers work smarter.

The industry can thank the pandemic for expediting the use of drones for surveying and augmented reality for jobsite inspections enabling project owners and managers to stay abreast of what’s happening without having to be physically on site. Getting the needed insights to familiarize crews with the site and enable fast decision making to keep projects on track is another huge benefit. Not to mention, an “advance crew” of flying robots keeps workers safe and out of potentially hazardous situations.

2. Make construction more appealing

Up-and-coming workers only know what they see. The perception of construction among the next generation of workers may not be the best, most flattering one. It’s on the industry to be proactive in recruiting and talking about all that a career in construction offers. A career in construction brings opportunity to see more of the country or world, a purposeful job, good pay and opportunities for advancement.

3. Tap into diverse workers

Females represent roughly 50% of the population but hold fewer than 10% of construction industry jobs, according to Architectural Digest. The limited number of women in construction tend to fill office roles. Only 6% of construction workers are Black or African American, while they represent 12% of the workforce across all industries, according to the BLS. This is a massive, untapped talent pool and a huge opportunity to fill the void in construction.

A more industrialized approach to construction, that leans heavily into modularity and paves the way for abbreviated onsite production, creates the safety, quality, cost savings and predictability makes construction jobs more desirable to a broader swath of talent.

Modular construction supports diversity

Industry experts believe modular design holds a lot of potential when it comes to building a more diverse pool of talented workers. It has the potential to deliver the benefits that will make it possible for men and women, of all sizes, ethnicities and cultures, to seek out and grow careers in construction.

Modular design hinges on offsite manufacturing. Increased offsite manufacturing reduces the requirement for sheer brute strength and fewer moving parts on the jobsite, creating a more controlled and safer environment accessible to more people.

In addition to enhanced safety at the jobsite, in the controlled, offsite manufacturing environment, employees enjoy regular hours, predictable commutes, better training and consistent supervision. There are many fewer unknowns compared to a construction site. Predictability and consistency form the foundation of a healthy work environment. Already, growing reliance on offsite manufacturing in construction is increasing diversity in the construction workforce.

Getting it right on site

While physical safety is paramount to making jobsites more welcoming to diverse groups, it is imperative to create a verbally and emotionally safe space as well.

U.S. Department of Labor study found 88% of women working in construction and extraction occupations have reported experiencing sexual harassment at work. In 2020, roughly 20 incidences of flagrant racism occurred on construction jobsites throughout North America, according to GSBE Business Update. This is unacceptable. A concerted effort must be made to call out bad actors and behaviors.

Empowerment and engagement of team leads (foremen, superintendents), to collaborate, callout opportunities for improvement, and maintain a productive, protected, and healthy work environment is key to creating a non-hostile work environment—the kind of place people want to show up to daily and a place where workers feel respected and valued.

Beyond eliminating bad behavior, invest in a shift toward good behaviors. Leaders should make eye contact, take input from teams and don’t talk over people. Create a jobsite where people feel valued and safe by:

  • Making it a condition of employment that people call out bad or hostile behavior when they see it;
  • Making sure jobsite signage and safety posters reflect diversity;
  • Amplifying the voice of women and other underrepresented people in meetings;
  • Incentivizing subcontractors and supply chains to diversify workforces;
  • Providing a suggestion box so people can anonymously provide recommendations or elevate issues;
  • Making sure there’s a women’s locker room and lavatory; and
  • Providing personal protective equipment for women.

These are simple steps. It only takes a few leaders to champion change and make it commonplace in the on-site culture so that construction can be a safer place for more people to work hard, feel valued and build meaningful careers. Greater diversity and inclusion holds a lot of potential to strengthen the construction industry.

This article is the third in a four-part series about the most-recent developments in construction’s cutting-edge technologies and best practices. Click here for part one and here for part two.

by Nancy Novak

Nancy Novak, Compass Datacenters’ Chief Innovation Officer, has over 30 years of construction experience and has overseen the delivery of over $3.5 billion in projects during that time. Prior to joining Compass, Nancy was the National Vice President of Operations for Balfour Beatty Construction which she joined after serving in a variety of executive positions for Hensel Phelps Construction Company. Ms. Novak is a member of the iMason’s advisory council and is actively involved in a number of organizations dedicated to the advancement of woman in business including Above the Glass Ceiling (AGC) who are working with Fortune 500 companies to aid in the advancement of women in STEM, Women in Government Relations (WGE), Women Construction Owners and Executives (WCOE), The World Trade Center Initiative, Fortune Media’s Most Powerful Women and the National Woman’s Party.

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