As “The Great Resignation” continues, America’s “quit rate” — a measure of the number of resignations during a month as a percentage of total employment — reached a 20-year high of 3.0 in November 2021 — and the construction industry is not exempt.
The construction industry’s quit rate is on par with the national rate, reaching 2.9 in November 2021, according to seasonally adjusted data from the US Bureau of Labor.
According to the Pew Research Center, many workers on a national scale reported leaving their previous positions seeking better pay and work-life balance. But in the face of major infrastructure spending spurred on by the Biden administration on the public front, along with the boom in residential construction that the industry has seen during the pandemic, it makes sense to reason that construction workers would be in a good position to benefit and advance in their careers rather than walk away. So, why leave now?
Recent input from those in the industry who have left (or are currently considering leaving) shows some strong trends. Some of the most-cited reasons for leaving construction included the heavy physical and mental toll of the industry, a lack of upward career movement, and low pay.
“I find myself experienced and well equipped but have come to the conclusion that the only way to make a sustainable living at this is to run a business,” said one Reddit user, a residential carpenter for over 20 years in Tennessee. “Even as a sub I get taken advantage of and underpaid often…I find myself working myself into the ground for so little…It’s just not a sustainable way to make a living anymore.”
The industry takes a physical toll it’s taking on workers, and injuries and lack of adequate support from employers pile on problems.
“I [don’t want to] continue tearing up my body for money,” said one six-year industry veteran. One carpenter was fairly blunt about the impact of the industry on their life: “Construction has given me a paycheck and a s**t load of back pain.”
Even one worker in New Hampshire who isn’t planning on leaving the industry noted that “construction is taxing on the body: “There’s many people who just aren’t cut out for it, whether it’s risk or just the environment.”
“Not only is construction the most dangerous industry in terms of worker fatalities, but the number of fatalities has increased in recent years,” said Guardhat CEO Saikat Dey.
“If we double or triple infrastructure spending with current construction practices, are we OK with the 10,000 to 15,000 worker deaths that could result?” Dey asked. “Building back ‘better’ must take account of those doing the building.”
Worker safety is far from the only issue — some have said that one of the major reasons that the industry is hemorrhaging workers is overregulation. President and CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) Michael Bellaman claimed that despite the major need for labor in the industry, “More regulations and less worker freedom make it harder to fill these jobs.”
However, this sentiment isn’t exactly shared by everyone actually doing the work in the industry.
“[Construction is] so poorly regulated,” added a former plumbing laborer in the United Kingdom on Reddit. “[My] employers were happy with cutting corners and faking paperwork, which amazed me, but I was instructed to keep quiet otherwise [I would] be kicked off the team.”
“These people would threaten and scream and lie if you raised a topic they didn’t like and I’m honestly baffled [as] to how certain companies are still standing,” they continued. “I joined wanting to learn and build a career but left dirty, tired, and scared.”
It isn’t limited to laborers, either: As one former project manager put it, “[The] pay wasn’t worth the headache. Folks I’m talking to are telling the same story — basically it’s not worth the pay anymore.”
Others simply want a better situation within the industry, not outside of it.
“Despite my efforts, higher-ups refused to invest in developing my skills. I was just a pair of hands,” one former laborer on Reddit noted.
This situation convinced them to leave for a job in property maintenance, where they got a better chance at development. “I’m learning electrical, HVAC, plumbing, light carpentry, drywall, painting…everything. Certificates and training paid for by the company and on-the-job. And the hours and benefits are much better,” they said.
Demand for workers is up — but supply is not growing proportionally
Industry professionals know how much they need workers: “The construction industry desperately needs qualified, skilled craft professionals to build America,” Michael Bellaman said.
However, contractors and other industry leaders say that it’s not so simple as to point to demand. Many are seeing an always-dangerous industry with little protection for workers in terms of safety and finances alike.
“The workforce shortage is the most acute challenge facing the construction industry despite sluggish spending growth,” added ABC Chief Economist Anirban Basu. “After accounting for inflation, construction spending has likely fallen over the past 12 months. As outlays from the infrastructure bill increase, construction spending will expand, exacerbating the chasm between supply and demand for labor.”
Laws protecting proper payment for workers are lacking to a significant extent nationwide, as well — and with so many workers across industries citing better pay as a reason for stepping away, this is a pivotal issue.
Though state governments are taking it on themselves to protect construction worker payments — with recent laws passed in California and New York focusing on protecting prevailing wage rights — it’s still too early to tell if these measures will have enough of a positive effect.