It’s a Competition… And We’re Losing.

I hate losing. Losing isn’t fun for anyone, right? Especially when it has real world implications, as is the case with the commercial construction industry’s workforce shortage. We talk a lot about this issue in our industry but I think taking a look at it from a different perspective might shed some light on what is actually happening here.

Thus far in my life there are a handful of scenarios I can look back on that have taught me valuable lessons I can still remember to this day. One of these experiences happened when I was an 18-year-old kid during my senior year of high school. Our basketball team had started the year well and, as high school kids do, we had grown a little cocky. On a Friday night early in the season we visited a conference rival, a team we could have beat by 30 if we were operating at our full potential, but we managed to only squeak out a 3-point victory.

We were probably feeling good about ourselves as we entered the locker room after the game, but we were greeted by a normally cool-headed coach letting us know (in a very loud way) just how far under our potential we had performed… and he was right. I don’t remember everything that was said in that locker room but one of his statements will stick with me for the rest of my life.

He said, “If you aren’t willing to put in the work, at a level of intensity that makes you better, you will begin to lose.”

He went on to explain that although we had great potential, up to that point we had failed to progress as quickly as other teams and would look back with regret if we didn’t start giving maximum effort. Thankfully we took his words to heart, changed some habits, and all learned a valuable lesson.

This example was at the forefront of my mind as a very close parallel to our workforce situation when I recently heard the frustration of a small-town high school industrial technology instructor from western Iowa in regards to the recruitment of his students.

In his message to me he wrote, “We have 15-20 colleges that come twice a year to our high school, the military is in our building monthly, and we have only ever had one trades employer come to our building, one time over the last several years.”

This instructor has students actively engaged in his construction program that end up not getting into our industry because no one is there to say, “These are the opportunities my organization has for you.” There are, however, plenty of colleges selling them the dream of a 4-year degree, so that is the direction they go.

The issue with recruiting in the commercial construction industry is not that companies have intentionally stopped doing it. The issue is that every other industry, especially colleges and universities, have upped their recruiting game so much that we are now overshadowed. Our industry, and the companies within it, have not kept pace with the other voices shouting for the attention of young participants.

Simply put: we are being out-worked.

Tomorrow’s labor pool contains a finite amount of resources and there should be no doubt that our industry is in an all-out competition. It should not come as a surprise that a student who is on the fence, college on one side and an apprenticeship on the other, chooses college when that organization has been in their school talking to them twice a year for four straight years.

So how does the commercial construction industry get back in the game? In my opinion there is a relatability and trust factor that comes with face-to-face interaction that cannot be replaced with any amount of generalized marketing. I believe for the industry to be widely considered for the quality career options we offer, it will require each company making an effort to promote themselves, and the industry, on a consistent basis. Moreover, it will require companies to meet these young people where they are, which is in their schools.

On a side note, can we really blame counselors and instructors for promoting the college path so much when these organizations are the ones who have worked hardest to develop relationships with them? If construction companies developed relationships with counselors and educators the way colleges do we might not be having this conversation right now.

I’ve found that it is a tough sell to convince a company to be actively engaged in workforce recruitment of middle and high school aged kids due to the lack of immediate reward; and let’s face it, we’re already at a major disadvantage when compared to the multi-million dollar recruiting budgets of colleges and universities. All of that being true, it doesn’t change the fact that if we want this needle moved we’ve got to do it ourselves.

If you’re part of a construction company in Iowa and you want a place to start, you can check out MBI’s list of high school and middle school guidance counselors. I recommend finding the 5 schools closest to you and asking if there are students you can come speak with. I can say with almost full certainty that the answer will be yes. After you speak with the students, you can develop a relationship with the counselor or educator and have the opportunity to come back 2-4 times every year. If you have questions about what to say or what to do, feel free to contact me and I would be happy to help.

If we aren’t willing to put in the work, at a level of intensity that makes us better, we will continue to lose.

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