The labor shortage gripping the construction industry is well documented and shows no signs of letting up. According to the 2022 Workforce Survey conducted by Autodesk with the Associated General Contractors of America, 93% of construction firms report they have open positions that they’re trying to fill.
Nowhere is hit harder by this change than the trades, particularly field teams. The amount of people working in the field has been declining for many years and the uncertainty of work brought on by COVID-19 has expedited the decrease. The median age of first-line supervisors of the construction trades is 47, according to Angi. That’s 24% higher than the overall average age of the population.
In response, many contractors are developing tactics to keep their level of production up with fewer employees. One strategy that has been gaining momentum is taking trade professionals who are looking to leave the field, whether through retirement or a career change, and moving them into the office to the coordination department. This transition allows them to use their extensive field knowledge to support the company by having an outsized effect on project success as well as supports the development of the next generation of trade contractors.
The coordination process is shown to have a significant impact on project success. Rework adds up quickly on a project – on average it’s about 5% of a project’s total cost. Coordination is an earlier line of defense against rework. When issues and mistakes are caught earlier, they are less likely to derail a project’s budget and schedule.
While the general contractor takes the lead in coordination meetings, the trades play a large role too. When the team views all the aggregated models together in a clash management system like Navisworks, the clashes are immediately highlighted to show what needs to be changed before construction begins. What’s less clear is how equipment can generally be used or accessed to function properly throughout the lifespan of the building. That’s where the presence of an experienced trade team member will help catch these mistakes earlier.
There’s a general understanding in construction that designers think in concepts and installers think in processes. When a design is technically sound but provides unrealistic real-world applications for both installation and ongoing operations and maintenance, it needs to be adjusted.
Imagine this scenario, a mechanical contractor has the access points for their mechanical room but a handrail for an adjacent walking ramp is blocking any vehicles from approaching the area. The clash detection didn’t catch an issue as the doors of the room don’t hit the railing when they open. Nor did the detailing department, a person can easily fit between the railing and the door to access the room. But the trade professional knows what it means to service a mechanical room and replace equipment when it’s failed. They point out that a truck with the replacement equipment can’t easily access the area and that the larger equipment won’t be able to be loaded into the room without being broken down into smaller pieces.
The solution to move the room, rotate the location of the doors, or move the railing to accommodate vehicles was a simple notion at this phase. But if made during construction, the labor and time cost impact of that mistake grows exponentially as they either pause production to request a change order or rip it out after understanding its limitations.
It is safe to say that a design detailer in the trades would usually catch that issue if it was from their single model. But when you get to aggregating models and focusing on clashes, it becomes a more complex beast. Getting an experienced field installer into the meeting is invaluable because it brings the understanding that only years in the field can provide.
As we look to tackle the systemic problem of the labor shortage in the construction industry, it’s not enough to focus on singular projects for near-term goals. Field professionals need to share their experience to help fill the knowledge gap from designers.
Many construction firms institute “Lunch and Learn” sessions with their team to help experienced field members share knowledge with in-office workers and reduce the brain drain that happens when the old guard retires. While these sessions provide the forum for broad exposure between team members, firms have also adopted a more personal level of interaction. Ongoing mentorship programs benefit younger office employees by giving them consistent insights into the world of field construction through the lens of someone who has lived it.
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Experienced field team members, as they will certainly tell you, have seen it all. They know the ins and outs of how to take a 2D drawing or a 3D model and bring it to life in the field.
While this strategy of moving field team members onto the coordination team is only a temporary solution to solving the labor shortage, it’s one that can delay the dramatic drop off in experience as the current generation settles into retirement.