President’s Perspective: Labor Lessons Learned from the Last Downturn

by Project Build Minnesota President David Siegel

Following the crash of 2008-10, our industry essentially stopped all efforts to promote careers in construction and recruit the hard-working youth of Minnesota. What we have discovered in the 10 subsequent years is how much work it takes to rev up the engine and bring industry-wide marketing and recruitment to necessary levels even as recovery slowly occurs.

Demographers told us more than five years ago that we would be facing a labor shortage and they were entirely right.

Of course, we’ve all experienced whiplash in the last seven weeks and we know we’re likely in for a difficult run ahead. For those of us in the residential construction space, we had the busiest spring for homebuilding and remodeling in a decade. The industry was desperate for workers and by all accounts, 2020 looked to be a very strong year. That has changed. But the Board of Directors of my association, Housing First Minnesota, said when it supported the founding of Project Build some four years ago, that we need to maintain these workforce recruitment efforts even when the economy inevitably takes a dive.

That economic challenge is before us. But we will recover and here is what is undeniably true: The workforce shortage we’ve been facing remains. It is a matter of simple demographics—many in our industry are retiring (which may be accelerated by our current crisis), and too few are entering.

As we come out of this, the demographics will not change—we have too few people to fill the construction jobs of our future. Perhaps some of our building techniques adapt as we come out of the COVID-19 fog. Maybe modular or panelized construction grow. But I remain convinced that we will nonetheless need Minnesota’s youth to consider a construction industry career. And I also think more will be inclined to do so.

It seems very likely that the COVID-19 crisis will affect attendance at four-year colleges. The University of Minnesota is modeling substantial reductions in attendance. Perhaps COVID-19 will be a force that returns us to valuing skilled labor; to jobs that one can obtain with a trade education or on the job. The prospect of more than $100,000 in college costs (and commensurate loans) in an uncertain economy is sobering.

Technical education, with the well-paying jobs in construction it brings, will seem ever-more attractive. We have great pride in what we do—we can drive by a building, an apartment complex, a house and say, “I built that.” Researcher Daniel Pink in his book “Drive” writes about the three keys to motivation—autonomy, mastery, and purpose. We provide all three in our industry. Those who work in construction have a tremendous amount of autonomy, clearly become masters of their trade and are passionate about building.

When we began Project Build Minnesota, we noted the importance of keeping a steady stream of marketing about our industry’s career opportunities. It is vital that all of us as industry leaders continue to reach out to today’s young people, their parents, counselors, and influencers to share the great story of construction careers. Now as much as ever we continue with our mission of making construction attractive to Minnesota’s hard-working youth and others in need of a tremendous career.