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Talent + Technology = Success: Labor Challenges in the Industry and Recruiting Talent to the Preconstruction Career Path
Steve Dell’Orto • 28 Apr 2023

Talent + Technology = Success: Labor Challenges in the Industry and Recruiting Talent to the Preconstruction Career Path

This discussion features ConCntric’s Founder and CEO, Steve Dell’Orto and Talent Expert, Gareth McGlynn, who is the Managing Director of Niche SSP, a firm of staffing experts that help connect companies with the most talented Estimators across the United States.

What is the outlook for the construction industry in terms of job growth and employment opportunities, and how might this impact the declining headcount?

Gareth McGlynn: This is a big question—a topical one as well. The short answer is that they aren’t looking good. The figures aren’t good. In 2023 alone we are looking at, and have to add a further 600,000 hires to the construction industry in 2023 alone. It’s staggering. There’s actually a report being commissioned by the government. And they have projected that by 2027 we’re going to need a further 1 million people within construction. Now, that’s all over construction, and in every department, so general contractors, contractors, architects, etc. The outlook isn’t good. What are we doing about it? I mean, it’s a huge topic. To me, it’s got to start in high school, that’s the only way to do it. And if you take that strategy of starting in the high schools, then you’re missing a gap, because by the time they get through to either the trades, or through the education system, it’s still 5 or 6 years. So between now—and that’s if you do the strategy properly and you started in high school—you’re still talking a tough 5 or 6 years.

Steve Dell’Orto: To add to that, you cannot only solve this hiring challenge by expecting to throw more people at the needs, because as Gareth pointed out, the people are just not going to be there. I think the long range reports and projections through the census is that by 2040, the population in the U.S. will have grown by 25%, from where it was in the mid to late 2000s. 

And when you have that sort of population growth—upwards of 80 million people added to our country—think about all of the stuff that has to be built to house them, to expand schools, to expand roadways, on top of the infrastructure that has already passed its shelf life—and that has to be replaced, too. So everything that has to be widened, rebuilt or expanded—that is a massive amount of demand—will be plunked on top of what is already a deficit for the labor. And not just at the craft trade level, but also in the professional management ranks. And I think in the world that Gareth and I operate in with more of a focus on the preconstruction professionals, one of the huge advantages—and I think it applies all the way around—is technology. While technology is not the only thing you do, it’s not the silver bullet itself, but it is a massive force multiplier. 

So if we can, as an industry, leverage and embrace more technology and advancement, to lighten the load on our people, then you’re starting to approach the challenge in a new way. Currently you have people working 150% of their capacity to keep up. If you can eliminate that 50% and even go a step further and get it to where you can actually increase their capacity, by eliminating the waste but optimizing what they’re already doing, you can take a staff of 10 and turn them into the effective staff of 20. You can double your bandwidth without adding a single person. I’m passionate that this is the primary solution to this ever growing labor gap that we’re dealing with. It’s a lot easier to do in preconstruction in the management ranks, but a little bit harder to do at the craft and trade labor ranks.

Gareth McGlynn: You’re absolutely right, Steve. Technology will play a very large role in helping solve this problem. I think it’s also important to note that it isn’t any one person’s job within the industry to fix the hiring shortage; it’s actually everybody in the industry’s responsibility. The architects, the owners, the developers, the general contractors, the construction management firms, these people have got to be talking to their nieces, their nephews, friends, uncles, and aunts. A lot of people in construction were introduced to the industry by their dad or mom, aunt or uncle, granddad or third generation builder. And that’s all well and good! We need to now get past those people that are going to come into the industry anyway, and get to their friends, their cousins, that think that they want to go and study law and technology. 

We see what’s happening in technology now, with a lot of the tech companies that are losing a lot of people. There’s no reason why a construction company can’t gather these people up. It’s up to the companies to start being picky and saying, I’m not hiring that person, because they haven’t got a construction management degree, or they haven’t come off a trade. Hire the person who has passion and who wants to be there, and bring them in and train them up. I don’t want to say it’s easy. But if you’ve got the right attitude, and the commitment and the passion, you can easily offer a lot to construction.

What are some of the most effective strategies for reducing burnout in the construction industry, and how can companies and organizations implement these strategies effectively?

Steve Dell’Orto: Right now to keep up with everything, everybody across the board is working well above 100% of their capacity, and it’s been like that for years. Construction has always been known for long hours and working on Saturdays. It’s high pressure and high stress because it is deadline driven, and the sense of urgency is what everybody deals with day in and day out. And a lot of stress creates the environment for burnout. Until you can really start to solve a lot of the “people problems” and have enough people to do the work that you’re otherwise committed to, then how well are you covering the bases? But again, as we think about how to rebalance what is commonly referred to as work-life balance, you’re either going to solve it by adding more people—so you can spread the workload across more people—or you can take what you have, and lighten their load, by optimizing and really eliminating wasteful processes, etc. You can do that in a way by inventorying everything you do, and figure out what’s not essential, get rid of it, and skinny up the workload and the steps to get a given task done. Or even better, take a lot of that stuff and introduce some technology that can augment what your human talent is otherwise doing. 

When people talk about technology in the workforce, they talk about replacing people and jobs, but we’re never going to actually have enough people as it is—so that’s not a threat at all. People should not think that way, because that’s a detriment to progress. They do need to really take a hard look at what they can do to eliminate wasteful processes and look at what technology they can bring in to automate processes and free up bandwidth to do the things that are essential for a human to do and let the machine take care of the rest. At that point, everybody can kind of get back to a work-life balance. They can get home at a decent hour, spend time with their family, and just not have that day after day grind that really drives the burnout factor and the other mental health issues our industry is facing. What do you think about that, Gareth?

Gareth McGlynn: You touched on all good points there. Technology has to happen. Getting data into people’s hands—good information, reliable good data—is the crucial thing. The old kind of misconception of an estimator as an introverted person sitting in a dark room in the corner with a spreadsheet and a calculator is not  correct and will not be the case because it’s evolving at an unbelievable rate and technology is helping that. These people have to be good communicators because communication is key if they are going to communicate all day, every day. 

We do a lot of polls and we ask people all the time, why would you leave your current job? And it’s all about the communication side and the hybrid opportunity. People don’t want to  be working 70-80 hours a week. A hybrid work environment allows people to have a better work-life balance. In addition to giving people back their time, it’s also important to ensure that team members can actually do the work they’ve been trained to do, which is high-touch, high-value, decision-making. And that’s where technology plays a big role. When you’ve got tools that help provide the data people need, they can then make fast and effective decisions. They can speak to the architect, they can speak to subcontractors early on with the right data, the right information. And communication then begins much simpler because you can share the right data, with the right people and then everyone can get more done in a shorter period of time.

Steve Dell’Orto: All those interactions are also co-dependent. So you can be hyper-efficient, but if the rest of your team of a dozen are all not efficient, they’re going to be holding you up. It’s not enough for one person to do what Gareth just mentioned in terms of the focus, etc. This is where the industry overall has to improve. As you come together in preconstruction, it’s highly collaborative, and highly dependent on leaders coming together to discuss and study important information and provide some form of analysis or decision. It’s really a group effort, not just an individual effort. And what you do and what everybody else does, in terms of how they’re optimizing has a huge effect on everybody else.

Gareth McGlynn: I think a lot of people and a lot of preconstruction teams that I deal with just hire the same people all the time. There’s not enough diversity. There’s not enough people, hiring people from different backgrounds into the trades. I think many people’s definition of “diversity” in a construction team today includes: one person with a construction management degree, an engineer, someone from the trades, someone from operations, a woman in construction, and maybe an electrical person and a mechanical person. How is that true diversity? And maybe by hiring the same types of educational backgrounds is limiting the industry from fresh new ideas. I hear it all the time from my client’s that they’re looking for five years experience, construction management degree or an engineering degree. And in crisis, how many of those do you have? Maybe 5 or 6. I always tell people that they need to truly diversify, as you’re going to have 5 people sitting in a room that have all been educated the same way and they’ve been taught to think the same way as well. What does that produce? The same old results, again and again.

What are some of the common sources of inefficiency in the construction industry? And how do they impact the overall productivity and profitability of construction projects?

Steve Dell’Orto: There are so many sources of inefficiency, the list is long. That’s a big, wide question as the industry is very vast in terms of all the different specialties. If I were to just focus on preconstruction and the inefficiencies from when I was running a large scale construction company, you could just see a long list of individual steps. If you watched what was a productive step, or tasks that one of our estimators or preconstruction professionals were having to go through, and then for that one, there was 3 or 4 other steps that they were having to do—not by choice—that were completely unproductive. It made me literally pull my hair out witnessing the inefficiencies. Because in preconstruction you’re going from project to project, sometimes several times a day or over a period of time, and you’re using the same data. You’re using the same data and it’s a number in a cell or it’s something in a PDF. It’s not real data. They were having to move that data from one spreadsheet to the next over and over. It was such an unnecessary step. 

The primary source of inefficiency in preconstruction lies in the redundant data entry. Currently team members have to continue to transfer the same data from one spreadsheet to another. And when it comes to the current tech solutions in this space, it’s all point solutions that are currently available which solve one slice of preconstruction, but fundamentally do not contribute to making the entire preconstruction process more structured and efficient. It’s one thing to move data from a spreadsheet to a spreadsheet, we all know how to do that. But how do you move data from a point solution to another point solution? That’s even trickier. So that’s another challenge that I think the industry could face if there’s not more unification and not more of a platform approach. Fundamentally, inefficiency is everywhere in preconstruction and it’s frustrating. And it’s one of the reasons why I actually chose to leave a 26 year career doing just that, because I just couldn’t keep banging my head against the wall the same way over and over. I felt like I could make a positive change in trying to drive the inefficiency out and improve the work effort, the work-life balance, and the end results for everybody by creating a holistic platform solution for preconstruction.

Gareth McGlynn: The inefficiencies are what is turning people away from the industry. That’s how detrimental it is. I get calls all the time from preconstruction estimators. They’re at a breaking point and there’s not enough innovation within these companies to help out the team. Companies are not taking the time and the resources to move their company forward from a technological perspective. They’re not creating a department within their companies for employees that are responsible for emerging technologies. And good talent is just going to leave because of the inefficiencies. It’s got to be seamless, it’s got to integrate seamlessly. Companies need to take greater action and it’s not going to be easy. 

It takes time to review all of the technologies, and it takes time to understand the talent that you’ve got, and how the technology integrates with the talent. Once you get that right—and I’ve seen it, there’s contractors out there, small, medium, large—it is like clockwork. Magic happens! Seeing a tech and talent solution work properly is like night and day. Suddenly team members are more productive at work. They have greater flexibility and work life balance. Employees are at home playing with their kids and managing softball teams, it’s a joy to watch. And people often think that when they’re in a bad environment that this is the way it always has been and this is the way that it has to be. It doesn’t have to be this way. The sooner people wake up and smell the coffee, the better.

Steve Dell’Orto: And efficiency isn’t just about doing the work and moving numbers around. It’s also the inefficiency that we currently have where the stakeholders are engaging with each other. They’re all drawing from different forms of information. And the inefficiency occurs at that planning table in these biweekly OAC meetings. I’ve sat in some and if you tally what the billing rate of all those people are sitting around the table in a 4-6 hour meeting, at least half of the meeting is spent going over old stuff and getting reconciled because all the parties are not on the same page of what they talked about two weeks ago. Talk about inefficiency and significant costs, somebody’s paying that bill! It’s thousands and thousands of dollars an hour for people to reconcile various forms of truth, when they should be drawing from a single source of truth for that data, and having information portrayed automatically in a much more graphical way. None of this stuff currently exists. 

Everybody’s just so stuck with Excel or the basic tools, and arguably, it’s because they like to point out the industry just hasn’t invested in the R&D to advance things. How are you communicating with others? How are you portraying information in a way that they can understand it? And can you move through that conversation efficiently?

It’s important to note that inefficiency can also breed mistrust and a lack of transparency. When there isn’t an easy way to seamlessly communicate information and give a full picture scope of a project, stakeholders can find themselves on different pages with different expectations. Instead, if you can do things in a little bit more of an advanced way using technology to provide a clear overview of a project’s status, now all of a sudden it’s an entirely different relationship. There’s transparency and everybody understands the premise of what you’re suggesting, and positioning. The ability to manage that process for a greater level of success, both in the relationship and the outcomes for everybody is vastly improved. It’s all about leveraging data, digitizing and transforming processes to be a little bit more modern, and bringing everybody together and taking down the physical barriers that prevent information exchange. I think a lot of people in our industry, when they’re presented with a solution, they sit back and say, “Well, it needs to do all of these things before we even entertain it.” And they don’t realize that, even if in its infancy, a preconstruction platform solution is  going to make you far more effective than you are today with your batch of ad hoc spreadsheets. I just get really impassioned around this need to really modernize things in our industry, because the potential is unlimited. Once we can get back up into the 21st century we’ll all be better off.

Gareth McGlynn: I think the idea of having that visualization through the preconstruction data in front of you, then being able to talk through it, to me once you’ve got that, that’s where the best talent and the best technology come together to create the best solution.

Follow ConCntric on LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter, to stay up to date on when the next interview will go live. To demo ConCntric’s platform, click here.

Follow Gareth McGlynn on LinkedIn or visit Niche SSP for information regarding the recruitment process of preconstruction estimators.

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