Though most states had to deal with business-halting lockdowns within the construction industry in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, some states stayed open for business to some degree — and in those situations, contractors benefited.
Scarborough, Maine contractor Landry/French Construction noted how significant those boosts can be for individual businesses. At the onset of the pandemic, the company was hired to convert a distribution center into a factory to produce rapid COVID-19 test kits with a 90-day completion goal.
Maine’s “lockdown” considered construction to be an essential business, essentially leaving day-to-day operations intact.
Though finding workers to complete a project so quickly would normally be a slower process, nearby states such as New York and Massachusetts “were basically shut down,” said Kevin French, CEO of Landry/French.
The company didn’t have to look far, bringing in workers from a New York company that was left idle in the work stoppage. “It was a huge win for us,” French added.
States which had less strict restrictions in 2020 saw a major boost in the following years, and there could be some more promising long-term ramifications from this as well.
For example, despite materials shortages and workforce shortages affecting contractors nationwide, Maine’s construction industry has recovered much more than in other states.
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The national average of construction employment compared to pre-pandemic levels is 2%, but Maine’s employment levels are only 0.3% below its pre-pandemic levels.
That could serve as an indicator of how growth may progress for other states, especially during a difficult time for construction.
Worker shortage still plagues construction in the US
Though circumstances left a large number of workers available in the industry in March 2020, it’s facing a major work shortage now.
“Construction activity has picked up in recent months but still has not reached the employment levels of early last year in most of the country during what has become a very tight labor market,” said Ken Simonson, chief economist for the Association of General Contractors, in December 2021.
The worker shortage is really holding back recovery for a lot of these states that didn’t have the “head start” that states like Maine did.
“If contractors had found enough qualified workers, more states would have recovered fully by now from the pandemic-induced job losses,” Simonson added.
Regions of the construction industry are looking to not only get back on track, but stay on track with growth. That could be difficult in the event of another lockdown in the future, so contractors would be smart to keep an eye on how things change in the industry — especially with the pandemic constantly shifting and governmental advice often changing.
The US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) issued guidelines in 2020 that outlined what would be considered “essential” in the event of lockdowns. However, the guidelines are limited in terms of what they show for construction.
“Each state defines essential business differently,” notes Levelset’s Jonny Finity. “Neighboring counties or towns may even disagree, or use different language entirely. The (Department of Homeland Security) doesn’t require any state to use their guidelines…perhaps because the federal government’s list of critical work is so vague, many local officials prefer to be more specific.”
For those companies that were held back during the early stages of the pandemic and those that got a boost, preparation is going to be key to continue moving forward.
“In the middle of the COVID-19 chaos, the contractors that do the best job preparing, communicating, and documenting are the ones that will be first in line to get paid,” Finity added. “They’re the ones most likely to survive.”