Optimism about the economic future of the construction industry is high, and employers expect to increase their payrolls in the coming year and beyond, according to the Associated General Contractors of America — but no one is really sure where the labor to support all that activity is going to come from.
And while the attention has largely focused on how hard it is to find skilled craft workers like carpenters, construction companies are also struggling to fill open slots for positions such as superintendents and project managers. It is for those jobs where some in the industry turn to professional recruiters.
Recruiters count both candidates and construction companies among their clients and work to arrange the best matches between the two. But, according to industry experts, that sounds simpler than it is.
“We use what we call a career-directed approach,” said Mark Jones, executive vice president and national sales manager at Kimmel & Associates. Jones said Kimmel is in a constant state of recruiting, not just when a job order comes in. The company’s sales team identifies qualified individuals and reaches out to them, whether they’re open to an opportunity at the time or not.
“We may find some people looking immediately or looking for something years down the road,” he said.
Workers in the prime of their careers, the recruiter said, could be looking to make a move at some point, and want to stake out a position geographically closer to where they plan to retire. Most recently, Jones said he placed someone he first made contact with 16 years ago. The candidate wasn’t happy with his company’s new ownership, a prospect that seemed unlikely when they spoke for the first time so many years ago.
“It's all about building and maintaining relationships,” he said, “and building trust. People take our calls because they know we're not going to waste their time.”
But that trust is just as important on the company side as well. After all, both contractors and candidates make up the company’s immense database, Jones said, and oftentimes the contractors they’ve maintained personal relationships with are a primary — and exclusive — source for candidate leads, an invaluable tool when supply is tight.
“It’s tough because good candidates aren't out there looking for a job,” said Brian Binke, CEO and president of Detroit-area recruiting firm The Birmingham Group.
Binke chalked up the tight supply to the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009 and to the lack of programs in high schools that might spark an interest in the construction industry as a career.
“A lot of companies got lean and mean or went out of business [during the recession]," he said. "At the same time, kids don’t see [construction] as a fun industry. Young people don’t know if they’re good at it or not because they’re not exposed to it."
Binke said when kids are exposed to classes like woodworking or metal working, which used to be mandatory in many high schools, they learned whether or not they had a talent for working with tools. If so, the construction industry was an appealing option for a career.
Develop skills for retention
Todd Whalen, president of Eclipse Building Corp. in Tampa, FL, said he uses every tool at his disposal to attract quality employees, including employing the services of recruiting firms. Right now, he said, filling superintendent and project manager positions are the most difficult, despite offering competitive pay.
Because of the labor shortage, Whalen said, he has developed within his company the position of site manager, which he described as a superintendent with certain project management responsibilities like helping put together scopes of work and coordinating change orders and requests for information. “They wear multiple hats,” he said, “and have an all-around skill set.”
The problem seems to be, Whalen said, that potential employees who have degrees in construction management are comfortable with technology but don’t have field experience. However, computer and software skills is where quality superintendents are lacking.
As for recruiters, Whalen said the firms he works with haven’t had much luck in finding appropriate candidates. The way he sees it is that many recruiters are just as much up against the wall as he is — unable to find qualified prospects in this market. Plus, the typical upfront fee — 25% to 30% of the placement’s projected salary from what Whalen's experienced — can be cost-prohibitive if the recruiting firm cannot find a good fit within a reasonable amount of time.
Work with local recruiters
Julie Strong, CEO and resident human resources expert at C1S Group, an engineering-construction firm in Dallas, said recruiting firms, at least in the local market, are money well spent considering the time it takes to vet candidates and sift through the resumes that come in after placing an ad. “I need to see five really, really good people, not 30,” she said.
Unlike some big firms, Strong said C1S has had the best luck using small, local recruiters that stay close to the industry and have made deep connections in the Dallas market, an advantage when it comes time to establish realistic salary expectations.
“They know their job is to help us find a person who will accept our offer at our pay,” Strong said. “Or they can tell us about the market and what the pay is. They can bring their expertise in that.”
While pay is an important consideration for both candidate and construction firm, Jones said Kimmel would never place someone for whom salary is the primary motivator for making an employment change. “Companies definitely are realizing that the bar has been raised from a compensation [perspective]," he said. “They realize that low-ball offers rarely happen anymore. They also realize that if someone changes just for money, they will change again just for money.”
One bright spot on the supply side, said Jones, is that a new crop of young people seem to be attracted to the technology that the industry has adopted in recent years — good news for a sector that is rapidly graying. “People that advise college and high school students are understanding the tremendous demand,” Jones said, “and demand yields opportunity."