A Different Workforce Shortage Issue

For those of you who do not know me, I am one of three sons of a brick mason. All three of us became masons. My father’s father was a mason. Nearly all my cousins and nephews worked in the industry at some time. You could say that for several generations we took a fairly “proactive and procreative” approach to filling our workforce.

For many companies this was not an uncommon occurrence. Excellent work, good pay, and working with family was a lot of fun. However, this is not nearly as commonplace as before. In fact, my mom and dad tried to influence me not to follow this path. When I was nearing graduation from college my father made me interview for jobs with so many of his friends, I finally had to tell him to stop. I got tired of saying “no, thank you.”

In hindsight, I am extremely glad not to have listened to my parents. I love the masonry trade. I love the industry. But as I grow older, I understand how wise and insightful they were. And none of my children ever learned to use a trowel.

When I read the papers and studies on workforce development there is never any mention of one very prominent issue. Can a construction worker (the men and women in the trenches doing the actual work) reasonably expect to be healthy and happily employed until they reach retirement?

Primarily, construction is challenging work. It is physically more demanding than most every occupation. The second fact is that people live longer now than before. Finally, when the time comes when a person can no longer physically perform the job to which they devoted themselves, there are not enough positions for them outside of fieldwork to continue in construction until retirement.

Nowhere, repeat nowhere, does anybody except for those who have lived to reach this conclusion acknowledge this issue. I have had more surgeries than I would like to admit, but I never sustained an injury related to any single event. I simply wore out my body. While I am not yet sixty, there is no possibility I could perform the work of a mason. Could I estimate? I could. But can the average bricklayer be expected to become an estimator? No. Could I run a crew? Of course, but not if I must lift, carry, climb, and do most of the tasks a foreman has on his plate. Because a person was good at his or her trade can they go in the office and become your accounts payable manager when they can no longer bend over or climb a ladder? Not likely.

Making the matter worse is the age for full retirement has risen and will continue to do so. For many industries this is not a deterrent that will keep people from entering a particular line of work. For construction it is a killer, literally and figuratively.

You may notice on MCN’s website that we are a member of Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention. If you go to their website, you will see the following claim; one that should give us all a cause for concern. “According to the Centers for Disease Prevention, construction occupations have the highest rate of suicide, as well as the highest number of suicides across all occupational groups.” Let that soak in for a moment. The highest rate and numbers for death by suicide across all occupational groups belongs to the construction industry. Are some of these deaths occurring when a person feels they can no longer do the job they love, and they are without options? You bet.

Too many people look at the wages paid to real construction workers and think it is adequate. Worst of all, too many people in the industry feel the same way. I maintain that is not the case when you consider occupational longevity. One argument is higher wages will stop projects from being built. Won’t we have the same problem when there are a lot of projects to build, and no one left to build them. The price of lumber increased dramatically, but houses were still built. What good is a bunk of 2×4’s if there is no one to turn them into a home?

Aging workers in the industry tend to be treated like an old tool. There is no appropriate use for a broom that lost all its bristles. It cannot hammer a nail. It can’t turn a screw. You simply throw it away. Taking this attitude with our workers is not an option and it is one we must fix if we want to attract young people into the trades.

Construction is an absolute societal necessity. The world depends upon construction workers as much as any commodity. The industry needs to examine and address the underlying issue of occupational longevity for its workers and find a solution. Then, recruiting people into construction will be much easier.

Is it advocating for early retirement with full benefits? Is it raising the pay rates of workers so they can afford to retire earlier? A combination of both? What is your take?


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