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Construction Industry Trends: March 2023 Roundup

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The construction industry has finally begun catching up on supply chain delays which has helped material costs come back down to normal levels. Just as the industry has caught its breath, it is now facing new challenges of inflation, interest rate increases, and the failure of Silicon Valley Bank along with other banks, all of which have trickle down effects into construction. While the construction industry pivots to address some of these new issues, they must continue to address issues like automation, diversity, and the labor gap that are now coming to the forefront as well.

In response to the persistently high cost of materials, the construction industry has been working to loosen the regulations on permits and worker requirements to decrease costs and reduce the time it takes to complete a project. However, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) focuses on building safety and reinforcing diversity in the construction industry which can slow down construction. The industry is looking to use automation as a way to strike that balance between building safety, project time-to-completion, and cost savings.

The Impact of the Banking Crisis on the Industry

The banking system experienced a shock when Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank both failed earlier this month. The resounding impacts of one of the largest bank failures since the 2008 financial crisis have yet to be seen as analysts are still anxiously awaiting to see whether there will be an effect on other regional lenders and banking institutions of a similar size. Many were hoping that the news of these bank failures would result in the Federal Reserve pausing interest rate increases.

Key Takeaways: Since regional banks are significant sources of financing for commercial real estate projects, tighter capital could have a significant impact on the construction industry. While pausing interest rate hikes would have been good for risk markets and loosening capital, the Fed ultimately announced a .25 basis-point increase on interest rates last week in a move that indicates fighting inflation is still the priority. Given this current risk environment, traditional advice dictates the transfer of finances into investments that are less cyclical and more long-term. As fears of a recession loom large over investors, risky activities such as capital expenditures, M&A, and repurchases are going to be re-evaluated.

The Department of Labor is Prioritizing Diversifying Megaproject Workers

Amidst this economic uncertainty, the Department of Labor is promoting diversity initiatives—business as usual. The Labor Department is trying to diversify construction’s workforce to ensure equitable work opportunities ahead of the infusion of federal funding for infrastructure jobs from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The DOL plans to support this effort by providing contractors with access to a more diverse pool of qualified workers according to a recent announcement last week.

To further assist project owners on the ground with their diversity hires, the Office or Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) will offer ongoing assistance at no charge through the Mega Construction Project Program. Mega projects are defined as any project valued over $35 million over the course of at least a year and with at least some federal contribution to the funding of the project.

While the Mega Construction Project Program is new, there are already possible plans in the future to work with the Department of Commerce which has recently expanded its own opportunities for women in semiconductor manufacturing and construction. Under this initiative companies seeking more than $50 million in funding from the CHIPS program need to submit a plan to provide childcare to their workers.

Key Takeaways: OFCCP will work together with local advocates and recruiters to remove any barriers these hires may experience due to their diverse backgrounds. OFCCP will also work to conduct compliance reviews to evaluate contractors for their anti-discrimination policies and equal opportunity practices. Construction companies should prepare to work with these recruiters to ensure they are prepared for these evaluations.

President Joe Biden’s 2024 budget proposal recommends a 36% boost in funding for OFCCP which translates to another 125 new full-time positions and indicates that companies in construction can expect more oversight in the near future. OFCCP will also have more resources to help construction companies leverage the talent in their local communities that has previously gone underutilized to tap into the full potential of a more diverse workforce.

With diversity playing a larger role in the near future, it’s important that contractors have the tools in place to expand their recruiting reach. Of course, that will be more difficult if contractors are still working with traditional, cumbersome HR and recruiting processes, instead of using streamlined and digital workflows enabled by the right solutions.

The Construction Labor Gap Tops 500k

The construction industry is experiencing high demand and a labor shortage at the same time. This shortage has persisted in the construction industry for some time as a large portion of the workforce increasingly reaches retirement age, but that has not made the situation any less avoidable as the number of workers with the licensed skills to replace them has grown at a slower pace. Despite the best efforts to open up new pools of talent with diversity initiatives, it will not be enough to fill the estimated 546,000 jobs needed in construction in 2023—especially as BIL funding begins to come through to start work on infrastructure projects.

Key Takeaways: Construction struggled throughout 2022 to hire as the industry averaged a record 390,000 job openings every month. The 4.6% unemployment rate in construction last year was the second lowest ever in the industry, but this means fewer workers looking for jobs and that the pool of workers to hire from is incredibly small. This is bad news as demand for labor is only expected to increase by 3,620 new jobs for every $1 billion in new construction spending. As infrastructure spending kicks in it will only exacerbate these issues, especially for construction companies seeking funding for megaprojects that may have additional diversity requirements in order to qualify.

Increasing Automation in Construction Projects

Automation is being touted as the solution to the labor shortage as the construction industry is applying robotic technology in new ways to reduce the burden on human operators. Construction is using self-driving robots to deliver materials where they need to go on the job site, lay bricks, and put up drywall—they can even build entire homes.

Naturally, large-scale projects will be more capable of absorbing the costs of implementing some of the more costly automated technologies. The construction of dams, roads, and bridges has adopted robotic equipment faster than other smaller project types. The home-building industry has also been slow to adopt automation because there are still tasks that require the kind of fine motor control and decision-making ability that are more challenging for robots.

There is a concern, however, that these improvements to worksite productivity with automation will only lead to increased expectations for people working alongside robots that can still lead to burnout which actually makes work conditions more unsafe. Others are concerned that these robots could take away jobs from people, but that turning point may still be a ways off given how wide the hiring gap is in construction as the number of skilled workers is insufficient to fill the vacancies in the industry.

Key Takeaways: Even though automation sounds expensive, it can actually save on rising building costs by reducing skilled labor expenses and other costs associated with on-the-job injuries from performing more dangerous jobs that can now be done by robots. Automation can make the job site safer for everyone which is good for the aging construction population who must continue to work in sometimes deadly conditions.

The imminent future of robotics in construction will not be about creating humanoid robots that can do everything a human could do, but rather, it will be more about making cutting-edge advances in artificially intelligent software, sensor technology, range-finding gear, and automating other labor-intensive tasks like digging or heavy lifting. In order to stay up to date on all of these industry innovations and more, be sure to follow our blog or visit viewpoint.com.

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Christopher Nobles is a marketing content intern with Trimble Viewpoint, and is currently a student at Corban University. He has a passion for community leadership, personal development, and all kinds of storytelling.