Every year brings new challenges to the construction industry and it has its impacts across every trade. Between the economic circumstances that can impact growth, to the continued advancements in technologies, 2020 proved to be a challenging year for those working in construction.
As we reflect back on this past year, we wanted to learn from those who felt it most. The men and women who worked hard every day to be successful in the industry, despite the challenges they came across.
So we asked them, “What were your biggest challenges within the industry in 2020?” Let’s take a look at what we learned:
Safety During a Global Pandemic
This year, we saw COVID-19 disrupt almost every industry, and construction was no different. According to McKinsey & Company’s 2020 The Next Normal in Construction study, "this crisis is also expected to trigger lasting change impacting the use of the built environment, like online channel usage or remote-working practices."
While construction employees found themselves working remotely across teams, time zones, and distances, many companies quickly pivoted, implementing measures (temperature checks, controlled access to job sites, etc.) aimed to keep workers healthy and safe. But challenges regarding safety remained have drastically shifted construction workflows. For example, when a worker calls in sick, quarantining other potentially exposed employees would mean reducing crew in an industry where labor shortage was already an existing problem. Other challenges include delaying projects when there's a positive COVID case to clean and disinfect.
However, one of the most significant changes during this crisis has been the adoption and the use of new technology. As remote collaboration during COVID-19 and social distancing became a reality in construction, many companies turned to technology as a safer way to execute the complex processes that have, and always will exist in construction.
Gathering and Maintaining Accurate Information
No matter the trade, gathering and maintaining accurate information seems to be an ongoing struggle within the construction industry. Whether your crew accidentally inputs a different job code or the wrong material was ordered, the impact it has on the business can be damaging.
“Our biggest issue is accurate information, whether it’s from the employee or supplier,” said Chris Berger, owner of C/T Electric. “We have to make sure that Daily Work tickets are completed with correct information, suppliers keep PO or work order numbers straight, and that billing and cost tracking is always accurate.”
The issue often lies within the varied means of communication spanning across different project stakeholders, and this leaves contractors feeling chaotic and disorganized. While email, phone calls, and text messages have simplified communication, the relaying of messages tends to become fragmented with all of these different channels available.
“It’s difficult to keep track of information as it changes throughout any project,” said Harold Amerin, owner of Harold’s Excavating Services. “One person sends you an email, one person leaves a voicemail, one person sends a text and before you know it, you’ve lost track of what’s most accurate.”
Mark Peralez, the technician at USIC, knows all about how inaccurate information can impact a jobsite. “So often I get to the jobsite and there are incorrectly marked areas,” he said. “Then I have to spend time calling contractors and trying to get the correct information.”
When inaccurate information becomes apparent, the contractor and team are often left scrambling for updates, taking valuable time out of their day to track down information. If you know anything about the construction industry, it’s that there is never enough time in the day; and the last thing you want to be doing is chasing down information.
What Ken Kelly, president of Kelly Roofing, has found to be helpful in transitioning your team to one unified technology platform. Ken sees technology as an accelerator, not a replacer, meaning; solving for something as simple as miscommunication can greatly improve the gathering and maintaining of accurate information.
According to McKinsey & Company’s 2016 piece on Construction’s Digital Future, large projects are typically 20 months late and 80% over the original budget. Fast forward four years, 2020 has proved that these project scheduling issues are still very much in existence.
If you look at scheduling through a broader lens, it doesn’t take long to notice that it’s more than just a calendar with a budget. Project scheduling begins with the identification and estimation of individual tasks that are dependent on a wide range of variables. This includes subcontractors, owners, crew members, and of course, budget. Not to mention the economic and climate impacts that can change at any moment. Seem obvious? It’s not.
“If there was one thing I could change going into 2021 it would be scheduling and time tracking,” said Chris Berger. “It is very important to me that everything and everyone is on point and on track. I would like to keep the employees working and deadlines met. To offset the scheduling conflicts you must take on more work and have a surplus of work. This can create a problem if everything is ready on time.”
One thing Chris has found to be helpful in project scheduling is vehicle tracking. “We at C/T Electric track our vehicles to know where each crew member is and this helps us in scheduling work. I can also verify that the employee is on their way to a job or is in the correct area.”
The variables that come with project scheduling and forecasting cause significant uncertainty in every project. According to this Connect & Construct article, the three biggest project scheduling issues are lack of scheduling accountability, lack of alignment between teams, and inefficient work processes.
Going into 2021, contractors are searching for tools and efficiencies to better help their project scheduling. “I can schedule out the world but there always seems to be some change or delay,” said Chris Berger. “If there was a way to predict delays, things would seem to be a lot more efficient”
Construction was facing a labor shortage even before COVID-19 and you better believe construction companies across the nation felt the impact. According to this U.S. News article, the labor shortage is so acute that 91 percent of more than 2,700 contractors, construction managers, builders, and trade contractors surveyed in the latest Commercial Construction Index reported having a difficult or moderately difficult time finding skilled workers.
As a contractor, you might be asking yourself, “where did all of the skilled labor go?” You’re not alone. “Without a doubt, the lack of skilled labor has been our company’s biggest hurdle in 2020” said Harold Amerin. When we asked him why he explained that many people just don’t have the qualifications that are necessary to do the job. As a small excavation company, they require certifications like a CDL license, which doesn’t seem to be as common as you’d think in this day in age.
Another trend that’s become apparent is the job-hopping that’s grown in parallel with the construction boom. “You hire a guy who does a great job and the next thing you know, they have a better offer from the guy down the road,” said Harold. “The more you increase your wages, so does everyone else, it’s hard to keep up while still making a profit.”
For Mark Peralez, it’s similar frustration that was ongoing in 2020. “We really struggle with retention,” he said. “When you have to keep hiring new people all the time, you have to retrain them over and over again and that takes up a lot of time.”
In conjunction with the labor shortage, many contractors fear that the younger generation isn’t embracing the industry in the same way that the older generation used to. When looking forward to 2020, contractors like Harold are hoping things start to take a turn, and young men and women feel more invested in the organization.
As for Harold, he’s turned to technology as a way to keep new employees engaged. From real-time project management applications to intelligent GPS equipment, the younger generation sees more opportunities to grow and learn within the company.
So Goodbye 2020, and Hello 2021
With technology constantly evolving, there are many opportunities to improve your business and learn from the challenges that 2020 brought. Going into the new year, consider adopting a project management software like WorksOS, to not only minimize the challenges we’ve discussed here but to continue the growth of your organization.
As another busy year wraps up, it’s a great time to reflect back on the past year but feel hopeful for what’s to come. Will the industry continue booming in growth, similar to the past few years? Will the lack of skilled labor improve or will contractors continue to search for quality employees? I guess we’ll wait and see!