Moving Toward a Younger, More International Work Force

Foundation Research Series

March 2007

The Foundation of the Wall and Ceiling Industry launched a research plan to help wall and ceiling contractors prepare for how business will be transacted during the next 10 years and to help them plan now for how they will meet their future business goals. The Foundation surveyed contractors of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry and interviewed a number of industry experts to interpret the survey findings.

The survey of members looked back a little bit (past 10 years) to get a better focus on the future (next 10 years). It was comprised of 15 questions that asked contractors their opinions about possible trends and how they see changes coming to the construction industry in general and the wall and ceiling industry in particular. Of the 1,128 surveys sent, 130 responded, representing an 11.5 percent response. All but three of the respondents were from the United States.

Also, 18 industry experts were interviewed to provide reaction and perspective on the survey responses. They represented a broad cross-section of the industry, including wall and ceiling contractors, manufacturers, distributors, suppliers and allied construction industry association executives.

The complete findings of the survey are presented in Preparing for Tomorrow, the latest offering from the Foundation Research Series. This article and others coming later this year are excerpted from the Preparing for Tomorrow publication.

This excerpt from the publication focuses on the work force … or lack thereof.

A flatter, faster world facilitates a younger, more mobile international work force. As some industries move jobs overseas to countries with lower labor costs, immigrants from other countries are moving to the United States where they feel they have greater economic opportunities. Immigrants from Mexico and Central America are a case in point. Although many are legal, many are not, and that is not stopping them from crossing the U.S. border in search of employment, especially in the service and construction industries.

The wall and ceiling industry is not immune to changes in the work force. For many years, maintaining a skilled work force has been a critical concern among wall and ceiling contractors. The industry experts acknowledged that the construction industry itself must take some responsibility for potential manpower shortages, as it has not been effective at promoting careers in construction to young people. In addition, attrition is taking its toll as older, experienced workers retire and/or move on to other work.

The industry experts acknowledged that the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades and other unions do a better job of training the work force than non-union (open shop) companies. The experts noted that although there are exceptions, few open-shop contractors have the ability to invest in worker training or are conscientious about letting workers know that there is a career path in their company and in this industry. They also suggested that the industry needs to promote the idea that there is a strong need for young people with expertise in information technology, especially as contractors work to get online and integrate computers and the Internet into their businesses.

In some markets, non-union contractors will enter into project labor agreements with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America in order to compete on projects that require union workers, especially projects in the public sector such as government buildings, educational and healthcare facilities, airports or arenas. These agreements usually are confined to a particular project or for a limited duration of time. Some owners also require project labor agreements as a way to ensure a supply of trained labor. The Union likes these agreements as it keeps the union labor force employed and provides opportunities for greater union exposure in non-union companies.

Respondents to the survey believe there will be a trend toward more frequent use of project labor agreements in the next 10 years.

Some of the experts noted that Hispanic immigrants are an attractive alternative, because they are regarded as more willing to show up every day, show up on time, do the work and be drug free. Without these workers, the industry experts believe there already would be very severe manpower shortages. The numbers tell the story. According to the industry experts, Hispanic immigrants comprise more than 20 percent of the wall and ceiling industry workforce, and are mostly congregated in Southern and Western states. In Northern California, for example, Hispanics make up 54 percent of the apprentices.

With a ready and willing work force of immigrant workers, wall and ceiling contractors are seeing more general contractors use contract labor brokers and expect their use to become more frequent during the next 10 years. Industry experts expressed several concerns about this trend. Contract labor brokers in union markets can possibly lead to market instability since union contractors cannot compete with the lower wages available to contractors who obtain labor from these brokers. Lower wages, according to the industry experts, may result particularly if a labor broker does not provide worker’s compensation and other benefits. Also of concern is the perception that the workers provided by labor brokers do not have adequate skills or the experience needed by wall and ceiling contractors. Further, the industry experts are concerned that some labor brokers may be employing illegal Hispanic immigrants. (See: Using Labor Brokers: The Legal Issues, published by The Foundation of the Wall and Ceiling Industry, 2004.)

The transition to a more international work force is causing wall and ceiling contractors to adjust how they manage their employees. Some subcontractors provide training in English, especially terms used on the job site. They also are teaching immigrants some basic skills needed for living in the United States. In addition, subcontractors are employing bilingual supervisors to ease communication problems, the industry experts reported.

The concern about illegal immigrants is particularly strong in the Southern and Western U.S. markets. According to the industry experts, if the U.S. Immigration Department starts raiding job sites, immigrants legal and illegal will move to more hospitable areas of the country, leaving a severe manpower shortage. The experts noted that immigration is not as big an issue in the upper Midwest or in union markets, except possibly those where contract labor brokers may be operating.