The biggest challenge facing the construction industry in 2023? Finding enough workers to staff their job sites.
That’s one of the key findings from the 2023 Construction Hiring & Business Outlook report released earlier this year by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC).
A total of 80% of respondents cited in the AGC report said that they are struggling to fill some or all their salaried or hourly craft positions. Only 8% told the AGC that they were having no difficulty in finding enough workers.
This challenge shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s followed the construction industry. Ken Simonson, chief economist with the Associated General Contractors of America, said that the construction industry’s hiring challenges stretch back decades, starting when schools began scrapping their vocational education programs and guidance counselors and parents began steering students to college degrees and indoor jobs.
“It’s been a chronic issue,” Simonson told Midwest Real Estate News in an interview.
The issue has persisted even though the construction industry has generally paid its workers well for entry-level jobs, Simonson said. He pointed to numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that for 20 years through 2019 construction jobs paid a premium of about 21.5% to people entering the workforce directly after high school.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the demand for restaurant, delivery and warehouse workers surged. That led these employers to boost their pay rates, too. That reduced the premium that construction workers were earning, with Simonson saying that the wage premium for construction jobs fell to as low as 15% during the height of the pandemic when compared to other jobs that employees could land directly after high school.
This dip in the wage premium further reduced the number of workers interested in jumping into the construction industry, Simonson said.
The pay for construction jobs is rising again, increasing at a faster rate than is the pay for other work, Simonson said. Simonson cited Bureau of Labor Statistics’ numbers showing that the average hourly wage for construction jobs was up 6.1% from December of 2021 to December of last year. During this same period, the average wage for all jobs in the private sector jumped by just 5%.
Even with these higher wages, though, construction firms are struggling to fill their openings, Simonson said. Simonson said that throughout 2022 the number of job openings at the end of each month set a record for that month.
In the AGC survey, 69% of respondents said that they expect to increase their headcount of employees in 2023. At the same time, though, these respondents recognize that doing this will be challenging. A total of 58% of respondents said that hiring will continue to be hard or will become harder. Only 15% said that filling open positions will become easier.
This challenge persists even though almost 75% of firms reported that they increased base pay rates more than in 2021. That’s an increase of the 62% of firms that said that they increased pay more in 2021 than in 2020.
With higher pay rates, what is keeping more workers from taking jobs in the construction industry?
“The pandemic has changed people’s choices in some ways,” Simonson said. “Job openings have been running at record levels. Openings have come down somewhat from the peak but are still running much higher than before the pandemic. Preferences have shifted, too. People have gotten used to working from home or on a hybrid basis with flexible hours. That isn’t possible when you are working on construction sites. Maybe you have a greater need to be close to your kid’s school. You don’t get that if you are at the top of a crane.”
Finding labor isn’t the only challenge that construction companies face this year. Rising construction costs continue to make building everything more challenging, Simonson said.
The good news? Simonson said that rising materials costs are either moderating or tapering. That will bring some financial relief to construction companies this year. But prices are still high. Simonson pointed to data showing that as of November of last year the cost of non-residential construction materials and services was up 10.1% when compared to the same month a year earlier.
At the same time, the rate of inflation was about 7.1%, Simonson said.
“Construction is experiencing steeper cost increases than are consumers and most businesses,” he said.
What has changed is which materials are costing more today. About 18 months ago, the costs of all materials seemed to be on the rise, Simonson said. Today, there has been a drop in the cost of materials such as lumber, steel, aluminum and copper. The cost of other materials, though, is on the rise, including gypsum, he said.
Long lead times continue to be challenging, too. Simonson said that the delivery times for transformers, switch gear and other electrical products have stretched to more than two years in some cases.
“Contractors are optimistic about the construction outlook for 2023, yet they are expecting very different market conditions for the coming year than what they experienced last year,” said Stephen Sandherr, the association’s chief executive officer, in a written statement. “Even as market demand evolves, contractors will continue to be confronted by many of the challenges they faced in 2022, including the impacts of supply chain problems and labor shortages.”
The impact of rising interest rates
As with everyone working in commercial real estate, contractors are worried about rising interest rates. Simonson said that AGC members surveyed said that they were still optimistic about the construction industry overall. But they were less optimistic than they were a year ago.
Simonson said that contractors are confident that even with rising rates, they will still be busy in 2023 with infrastructure and federal projects. Contractors were especially confident that highway and bridge work will remain busy categories this year. They expected, too, that they would be busy tackling airport, rail and port construction projects.
Where contractors were less optimistic? Private construction work. Simonson said that survey respondents expect the amount of private construction work to slow this year.
Simonson said that he expects a continued slowdown in single-family housing construction this year. He also said that he expects construction activity to slow in any investor-financed categories, including apartments, warehouse, lodging, retail and office.
On the positive side, Simonson said that he expects higher demand for new manufacturing facilities in the United States.
“We’ve already seen these enormous semiconductor fabrication plants being built,” Simonson said. “We are seeing the construction of elective vehicle plants. Other forms of manufacturing are being brought back to the United States. Manufacturing is already strong and should get even stronger in 2023.”
Even with these opportunities, though, many contractors are expecting a wilder ride this year. According to the AGC survey, 36% of respondents said that they have had a project delayed or canceled and not yet rescheduled. A total of 13% had already experienced a delay or cancellation for a project scheduled in the first part of 2023.