Editor's Log: Labor: Inhibitor To Growth?

By Robert Carpenter, Editor | March 2014, Vol. 69 No. 3

Labor shortages are not limited to oil and gas transmission pipelines. Gas distribution contractors can usually offer a regular paycheck and excellent benefits year round. But working out in the elements and making a career in the construction market simply doesn’t have the appeal that it had 20 or 30 years ago. Integrity management demands have kept distribution contractors busy to the point that they are generally looking for labor. Now, as new construction begins to ramp up, some local distribution companies have expressed concern that there is enough labor to continue both the integrity management efforts when construction needs are added.

In the finite universe of horizontal directional drilling, finding and retaining skilled drillers is a constant struggle with workers frequently receiving higher offers from competitive companies. Those contractors too are looking for ways to train, develop – and retain – qualified drillers.

Sewer, water, telecom and electric contractors are not exempt as they also find acquiring skilled labor an increasing challenge. Those contractors too complain that a lack of labor has become a major barrier to growth.

To some degree the Hispanic immigrant workforce has been the savior of the construction market. But as more than one contractor has pointed out, cultural differences and language challenges can be difficult to navigate. The paperwork trail now required to document a worker’s eligibility has also driven away potential hires.

In Underground Construction’s latest municipal survey, cities are expressing similar concerns. Labor was cited frequently as a major problem for sewer and water managers. They see their workforce aging, retiring and not having qualified people available to replace them. Thus, valuable job experience is disappearing and there aren’t adequate personnel to train and impart knowledge upon.

We hear this story time and again: the digital age has also brought a fundamental shift in the work habits and interests of young people entering the workforce. In some ways, the Great Recession served as motivator for many people. Trying life in the construction market was much more palatable if it enabled one to pay the rent and eat. Still, many government programs make it too easy for people to hold out for “something better” than to get their hands dirty. Our society has become too cool for manual labor in the great outdoors.

There are many programs in place to attract students and young people into our markets. Frequently we learn of new, innovative ideas to appeal to workers. All help but no program has yet to fully address the problem.