Tackling the labor shortage: Design and Make industry strategies after the Great Resignation

The Great Resignation led to a labor shortage in the Design and Make industries. Explore how companies are addressing this challenge through career development, competitive salaries, and improved recruitment strategies.

“Help Wanted” sign in a storefront window

Shawn Radcliffe

June 20, 2024

min read
  • Design and Make industries struggled with tech changes and skill shortages before COVID-19.

  • The pandemic led to many workers leaving their jobs, affecting retention and productivity.

  • Companies are focusing on career development, better salaries, and improved hiring to solve labor shortages.

Companies have faced a number of challenges in recent years. One of the key ones is the labor shortage brought on by the Great Resignation—also known as the Big Quit—during which millions of employees voluntarily left their jobs over the first two full years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But to fully grasp the impact of the Great Resignation, it’s essential to understand the pre-pandemic state of the Design and Make industries. These industries—encompassing architecture, engineering, construction, and operations (AECO); design and manufacturing (D&M); and media and entertainment (M&E)—were already navigating a complex landscape marked by rapid technological advancements, evolving client demands, and a competitive global market. Companies were under pressure to innovate and streamline operations while managing costs and maintaining quality. Employee retention was an ongoing challenge, with firms striving to attract and retain top talent amidst a skills shortage and increasing competition.

The onset of the pandemic exacerbated these preexisting challenges and introduced new ones. The global health crisis disrupted supply chains, halted projects, and forced a sudden shift to remote work. This upheaval set the stage for the Great Resignation, when a confluence of factors led to an unprecedented wave of employee departures.

Companies still dealing with aftershocks of the Great Resignation

Construction workers and materials in an unfinished interior office space
Some companies are offering more growth opportunities, apprenticeships, and training programs to encourage employee retention.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 47.7 million American workers quit their jobs in 2021, with 50.6 million quitting in 2022. This excludes retirements and company transfers. Similarly, the country’s overall “quits rate”—or quits for the year as a percentage of employment—was 2.7% in 2021 and 2.8% in 2022. In comparison, the quits rates were 2.3% in 2019 and 2.0% in 2015.

The highest quits rates during the Great Resignation were in retail and food services, BLS data shows. However, construction (2.4%), manufacturing (2.3%), and other industries were also impacted.

A number of reasons have been given for the large number of people voluntarily leaving their jobs during the pandemic. A 2022 Pew Research Center survey found that the top ones cited by those surveyed were low pay, no opportunities for advancement, and feeling disrespected at work.

By mid-2023, the quits rate in the United States had fallen to pre-pandemic levels and it is even lower this year. But some sectors are still feeling the aftershocks of the Great Resignation. According to a 2023 report by the Engineering Management Institute (EMI), 55% of architects and engineers say the Great Resignation is still impacting the industry.

In addition, 55% would consider leaving their current job for a new opportunity, the EMI report shows. The top reasons given for thinking about quitting are searching for career advancement (53%), wanting a more competitive salary (40%), having a high level of stress (32%), and not feeling valued at work (31%).

Employee attrition a top industry challenge

Engineer and apprentice making notes and calculations to plan a CNC machining project
Some companies are offering more growth opportunities, apprenticeships, and training programs to encourage employee retention.

The EMI findings align with those of Autodesk’s 2024 State of Design & Make report, which is based on surveys and interviews with almost 5,400 leaders, futurists, and experts from the AECO, D&M, and M&E industries from countries around the world.

The report found that 38% of respondents say higher employee attrition over the past three years is a top challenge for their industry. In spite of the impact that attrition is still having, a significant number of respondents (17%) report that their company is not handling this challenge.

Many companies, though, are making an effort to keep employees from leaving for other positions. One of the top initiatives is providing employees with career development and growth opportunities, which 18% of State of Design & Make respondents say their company is focused on. By encouraging existing employees to improve their technical skills, companies can promote them within the company.

One challenge with this approach is deciding which types of training to focus on, says Severin Tenim, head of strategic projects and development at ALEC Contracting & Engineering. “We often ask people what they want to learn, rather than try to dictate what they should learn,” he said. “Alternatively, we focus [our training] toward specific problems where we have to address particular issues that are occurring on multiple projects.”

Another top solution, reported by 14% of survey respondents is retaining employees by offering attractive salary and benefits, such as health insurance, flexible work hours, and opportunities for training and development. Some companies are also making an effort to recognize employees for their outstanding work.

In addition, 9% of respondents say their companies are focused on fine-tuning their recruitment in an effort to retain employees longer. This includes hiring more educated employees and expanding recruitment both locally and internationally.

For example, Indian media production company 88 Pictures started a training institute for people from remote areas. “We find students from remote parts of India, where they don’t have a lot of infrastructure, but they do have a lot of curiosity and a lot of innate skills,” Founder and CEO Milind D. Shinde told Autodesk. Then, “we bring them to a city like Mumbai or Bangalore, and we incorporate them into our system.”

Company culture and sustainability boost retention

Several young adult environmental volunteers carrying supplies to plant trees in a green space
Companies hope to retain employees by adopting sustainability measures and supporting employee volunteerism.

Other companies are addressing attrition by building a company culture that supports and appreciates employees. “The work experience is shaped by policies, tools, and all of these things, but it’s also shaped by culture and space,” said Kim Dabbs, global vice president for ESG and social innovation at Steelcase. “We always have our eye towards innovation on the people side, as well.”

These days, an important part of a company’s culture is how it is responding to climate change, something that many younger workers are concerned about. Taking steps in this area may reduce attrition—72% of State of Design & Make respondents say sustainability efforts can help attract and retain employees.

Respondents say there is also a role for human resources in helping to retain employees, whether by supporting employees with wellness and mental health programs or by conducting regular performance reviews.

However, even with all these efforts, companies may not be able to change the fact that “younger generations have a much higher turnover,” said Lisette Heuer, director of business transformation at Royal HaskoningDHV, a consultancy engineering firm.

This makes it essential for companies to accept and adapt to this new trend. “We need to have faster onboarding and better knowledge-management systems,” she told Autodesk, “so that when someone leaves, the disruption is not as severe, and work will continue.”

Shawn Radcliffe

About Shawn Radcliffe

Shawn Radcliffe is an Ontario, Canada–based freelance journalist and yoga teacher, specializing in writing stories about health, medicine, science, architecture, engineering, and construction, as well as yoga and meditation. Reach him at ShawnRadcliffe.com.

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