“Where are all the candidates?” That’s been the question on many construction executives’ minds over the past several years. As the construction industry has continued its rapid growth rate, companies have found themselves struggling to bring in the skilled labor they need to meet market demand. Job postings that would have brought in hundreds of applications a decade ago are now seeing a small fraction of those results, despite competitive pay, interesting projects, and growth opportunities. As an executive recruiter and construction industry advisor, I think it’s important to look at this question from two angles: the where and the why.
Where Are All the Construction Candidates?
This one’s pretty easy to answer: there are simply fewer people in the construction industry than there were a decade ago. When the recession hit, several things happened simultaneously that changed the course of the construction market. First and most obviously, construction workers throughout the industry lost their jobs, their houses, and their savings, and they were forced to find work in other industries. At the same time, a new generation of workers was entering college and the workforce, but because of the recent construction market crash, those workers were seeing and hearing from the news and from their families that construction management and civil engineering were not stable career paths. Therefore, they didn’t pursue either degrees or entry-level careers in the construction industry, and there are now significantly fewer mid-career construction professionals than the industry needs. Even after the recession ended, the industry’s reputation was damaged by those economic blows to its workers, and the majority of new graduates have not changed their minds about jobs in construction. In addition to those recession-related impacts on the construction workforce’s numbers, the Baby Boomer generation has been and continues to be retiring at a rapid pace, depleting the number of upper-level construction professionals on the market. For those keeping score, that means that due to natural and economic causes, the construction industry as a whole has fewer workers at the entry, middle, and upper levels, creating an industry-wide shortage in nearly every position.
Why Aren’t Construction Workers Changing Jobs?
The second part of the problem is that the construction professionals who did enter or remain in the construction industry are much less willing to change jobs than they were a decade ago. Why? In my discussion with candidates, here are three issues that come up over and over again: First, candidates tell me that their companies are taking good care of them. Does this mean higher salaries, better benefits, or larger bonuses? Maybe. But part of that mindset comes from the simple fact that companies are busy, and having a lot of projects lined up makes employees feel stable and cared for. Unfortunately, this is a false positive that lulls candidates into ignoring great opportunities in exchange for the simple perk of staying busy. To that end, the second thing candidates tell me is, “I’m too busy to look at anything right now.” Most of the construction professionals I’ve spoken with over my twenty years in the industry have been project-driven; they take pride in their work and don’t want to leave something unfinished. Since companies are keeping their employees busy, candidates don’t have time to focus on new opportunities and excel at their jobs. Lastly, and most simply, candidates are afraid. The industry is still in a “recession hangover,” where those who had to hop jobs or take pay cuts just to stay employed are remembering that pain and anxiety, and they’re grateful now for steady income. They don’t want to risk falling victim to “last in, first out” policies if the economy gets hit again. Industry leaders may know that this is the best time for candidates to make a move, but the candidates are clinging tightly to their safety nets.
What Can Construction Companies Do About It?
There are a lot of ongoing discussions about the best ways to bring new workers into the industry and to increase movement in the existing market. However, here’s the most important thing to note: it doesn’t matter why the number of available workers is lower than it was. It’s just a fact. The good news is that there are still A-players in the market who are open to quality moves. The best thing your company can do right now is to stop getting caught up in quantity and start focusing on quality. If someone introduces you to one highly skilled, highly motivated candidate, don’t waste time wondering how many options you would have had before the recession. You’ll lose momentum and, in all likelihood, you’ll lose that candidate as well, to a competitor who moved quickly to secure top talent.
For the time being, the quantity you may be hoping for isn’t coming. But luckily, the quality is there, and all it takes is for your company to change its mindset and embrace the skilled workers who are excited for the opportunities you have to offer.