A strong construction market is a wonderful thing — until you can’t find the reliable, skilled labor needed to complete your project.

Fueled by robust capital spending across a range of markets and a growing wave of retirements, the current labor shortage varies in severity by region and trade. But it is so acute that 91 percent of the contractors, construction managers, builders and trade contractors surveyed in the latest Commercial Construction Index (CCI) reported difficulty finding skilled workers.

Retirements in the supervisory and management ranks further concern contractors whose futures depend on successfully transferring safety, quality and institutional knowledge to the next generation. Burns & McDonnell shares these concerns, particularly as they impact our ability to complete work on the accelerated schedules our projects often demand.

That’s why we’ve taken steps to counter these headwinds. It has led us to double-down on some of our own practices that drive planning and organization of our projects as early as possible in a project cycle. I’ll give you some examples. 

Developing strong working relationships in local subcontractor markets, while also as maintaining regional and national relationships, is key. Early understanding of core skill sets and limitations, combined with targeted project labor surveys, help us establish timely, right-sized construction packages that set efficient schedules and align with subcontractor community strengths. In today’s market that may mean multiple packages of smaller scopes of work within a single trade.

As an integrated engineer-procure-construct (EPC) provider, we have a unique ability to drive construction job site conditions during design that minimize labor risks and increase predictability.   Design and project management tools can define crew-ready work packages, while building information modeling (BIM) systems, smart time-phased models and other technologies increase our ability to minimize changes, perform collaborative planning and clearly identify available construction work fronts and material status. 

When craft availability is limited, strategic use of off-site prefabrication and modularization is effective in driving down peak manpower, eliminating trade stacking and minimizing overall field construction hours, all of which improve safety, quality and productivity.

In many locations, we compete with other projects for top skilled craft. Making our construction sites places where workers want to work — versus have to work — is always our goal. Establishing safe, collaborative job sites that truly embrace the craft as valuable team members helps breed repeated success. Ultimately our industry must be proactive in succession planning to combat the tightening labor market. Every company should regularly identify up-and-coming talent and team these personnel with more experienced staff. 

One thing we know for sure: Successful knowledge transfer doesn’t happen by chance. It takes intentional planning across an entire organization, beginning with the most basic skills. 

Intentional planning alone won’t solve the labor shortage. But it does help manage it.


The complex construction industry gives everyone a lot to think about on topics ranging from safety to schedules, technology to modularization.

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Matt Ralston is senior vice president of construction operations at Burns & McDonnell. He oversees construction operations in a variety of industries, including oil and gas, power generation, transmission and distribution, aviation, government, water and transportation.