One of the most noteworthy impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the national labor shortage and the widespread media attention it has earned.
According to Newsweek, there were 10.4 million job openings in the United States in September, but fewer than 8 million unemployed workers. That gap has placed enormous stress on the overall economy, from manufacturing and distribution to the retail and service sectors, as suppliers struggle to meet consumer demand.
For those in the skilled trades industries, this story is familiar. They have faced a chronic version of the overall labor shortage for decades.
Demographic challenges and misconceptions
The average age of skilled workers is now 43, according to one estimate from Angi. With fewer young people entering the trades every year, the situation is expected to get worse. The approaching wave of baby boomer retirements will only add to the problem.
For manufacturing, construction, and field service companies, the skilled trades crisis poses major ongoing challenges. It’s hard to maintain productivity and customer service while you’re understaffed or experiencing frequent turnover. Projects are often delayed because workers aren’t available. Revenue is lost for multiple reasons: worker inexperience, inefficiency, long work hours, or jobs that have to be postponed or turned down.
Unfortunately, many high school students and recent graduates who might thrive in the trades never consider a career in those industries. The message that college is the only path to success has become ingrained in our culture in the last 30 years. Despite the rising cost of higher education and the increasing number of students who never earn a degree, the college journey has eclipsed all other options.
In addition to highlighting the labor crisis, recent circumstances have demonstrated that manufacturing, distribution, and residential and commercial service jobs are a critical part of the national economy. These industries played a key role in public health and safety during lockdowns and periods of social distancing and quarantines. Many products and services provided by the HVAC and PHCC industries proved to be essential during the pandemic and have remained critical economic drivers as communities have reopened.
This national spotlight on the essential nature of the trades offers an opportunity to reorient public perception and correct the misconceptions that have contributed to the skilled trades labor gap.
Closing the gap
In response to the growing labor gap, trade organizations have partnered in recent years with vocational schools, employers, manufacturers, and public agencies to promote the trades as a viable alternative to a four-year degree. Their combined efforts are focused on the many immediate advantages offered by a skilled trades career:
- High wages
- On the job or employer-funded training
- Lack of student debt
- Immediate available positions
- A wide variety of vocational options and career trajectories
- Entrepreneurial opportunities
Additionally, advocates and thought leaders are making the case for other long-term strategies that will create a more effective and reliable talent pipeline. Among those ideas is diversification. Many communities have traditionally been underrepresented in the trades; focusing recruitment, outreach, and marketing efforts in those communities can build trust and allow the trades industries to connect with vibrant new pools of talent.
Those efforts, however, will take time to pay off. In the meantime, employers are still faced with a labor crisis of historic proportions and the urgent need to operate efficiently in order to remain competitive in this challenging economic climate.
In order to maintain productivity throughout the remainder of the pandemic and during recovery, many employers are looking for immediate solutions. While there is no magic bullet that will compensate for a labor shortage, there are a number of new and emerging tools available that can help companies boost efficiency and productivity so they can continue to deliver results for their customers.
The pandemic has focused a spotlight on the importance of the technology revolution that was already underway among skilled service providers. Some of the major technology trends and developments that have been accelerated by the pandemic and its fallout are:
- Mobile and remote capabilities: As COVID-19 forced many employees across multiple industries to work cohesively without a physical office, technician mobile apps and other remote technologies have become invaluable to commercial contractors of all types. Today, various mobile applications give teams remote work capabilities that weren’t possible a decade ago.
- Modular construction: The modular construction market is seeing an increase in business, which is in response to combined cost-effective construction technology and labor shortages. Modular and offsite construction continues to grow and contribute to less expensive housing and commercial construction. In addition to their convenience, other benefits of modular projects include the ability to more effectively regulate worker safety within ventilated and climate-controlled workspaces. These advantages also further help workers comply with social distancing guidelines.
- Artificial Intelligence: Artificial intelligence (AI) is capable of lowering the cost of construction and service while helping teams successfully plan and schedule projects. AI is frequently used in software to conduct analyses and simulations in a variety of hypothetical situations and environments. In turn, AI is invaluable in developing new safety protocols and minimizing the risk of workplace injuries. Its role is expected to continue to rise in response to the workforce shortage exacerbated by COVID-19 shutdowns.
- Integrated software solutions: The number of contractors who still rely on pencil and paper or spreadsheets for record-keeping and accounting has steadily dwindled over the last decade, and sharply declined during 2020. Simply switching from manual job management to an enterprise solution can generate major gains for most businesses. A single all-in-one platform is critical for efficiency; requiring technicians to move back and forth between multiple apps not only takes up precious work time, it can serve as an obstacle to adoption.
- When actionable data from across departments is collected and accessible in real time, all parties involved in a project benefit. Up-to-the-minute insights and transparent communication empower purposeful, immediate decision-making and fast, accurate execution.
Resolving the labor shortage that has challenged the skilled trades will be a win not only for the industries involved. The long-term strategies currently being deployed will expand the choices available for young people and dismantle the preconceived notion that a college degree is required for success. By opening up opportunities for vocational training and apprenticeships in place of a university program, we can ensure young people are on the right track from the start. Presenting the trades as a viable option could also help reduce the national burden of student debt and alleviate college dropout rates.
In order to find and implement a comprehensive solution, it is imperative that we examine and assess our educational pipeline and deliver an authentic message about the advantages and opportunities of skilled trades careers. Innovation is the key to ensuring America’s workforce is prepared and supported.
By Alok Chanani
Alok Chanani is an entrepreneur who spent nearly a decade as the founder/CEO of USA Commercial, a construction company that built apartment buildings in major cities across the US. During this time, Alok realized how innovative technology could change the lives of the specialty contractors he was working with, which inspired him to launch his software solution, BuildOps. A former U.S. Army Captain, Alok served as an infantry platoon leader, combat engineer, and unit commander in Baghdad — spending a year moving large amounts of currency around Iraq. Alok has a BS from Cornell University and an MBA in real estate from the Wharton School.