How to Overcome the Skilled Labor Shortage in the Roofing Industry

Practical solutions to find and keep the skilled workers you need, courtesy of IKO Roofing

Are you optimistic about your roofing business’ prospects and potential, yet concerned about delivering results because of a skilled labor shortage? Do you have more projects lined up than qualified roofers to complete them? Are your competitors poaching your crews?

Do you have more work to do than workers to do it? You’re not alone. But don’t get discouraged. Get smart!

In this article, we’ll explore the situation as it directly pertains to the United States. However, Canadian readers should be aware that their country faces many of the same challenges. In June 2014, Canada’s then Minister of Employment and Social Development, the Hon. Jason Kenney, addressed an economic summit in Toronto, Ontario, saying that the construction sector would be facing a serious skilled labor shortage in the coming decade.

According to the national 2017 Construction Survey and Business Outlook conducted by the Associated General Contractors of America, 73 percent of participating construction firm respondents anticipated a need to increase their headcount while 66 percent said they were having a hard time filling the available jobs. That means almost three out of four saw business opportunities but only one in three believed they could hire the tradespeople needed to take advantage of those opportunities.

That’s far too much business being left on the table, especially when you consider that installing a new roof is on the list of homeowners’ top five projects across the country, according to HomeAdvisor’s 2017 True Cost Report.

No wonder you’ve been feeling the effects of a skilled labor shortage in your own roofing business! Let’s take a look at a few factors involved and explore some possible solutions.

 

Where Have All the Skilled Workers Gone?

According to experts in the labor and industry sectors, these are the main reasons for the skilled labor shortage we’re currently experiencing:

  1. The Housing Bubble Burst.
  2. Changing Demographics.
  3. Reduced Immigration.
  4. Lack of Vocational Education Programs.
  5. Public Perception of the Trades.

 

The Housing Bubble Burst.

In 2008, the subprime mortgage bubble burst and America was plunged into what has been dubbed “The Great Recession.” The U.S. Department of Labor Statistics estimated that 40 percent of the construction trades’ workforce disappeared.

While the majority found employment in the energy sector, primarily the oil and gas industry, it was expected that these workers would return to their roots when the U.S. economy picked up again.

Now, almost a decade later, the economy has improved and housing starts have rebounded but very few of those tradespeople (workers born outside the U.S., in particular) ever did come back. When they left, they took their talent, skills and experience with them, creating a vacuum in our industry that’s more like a gaping black hole. The skilled labor shortage statistics remain dire. Demand is far outstripping supply.

Women account for only 2.9% of U.S. tradespeople, yet the roofing industry’s projected growth of 13% between 2014 and 2024 and median annual salary of $37,760 (2016), should be attractive to more laborers, both male and female.

The short-term solution is to offer skilled workers higher wages and better benefits than the next guy but this is not a sustainable strategy. There’s a limit to how far you can stretch your payroll and nothing to prevent others from wooing your workers away with similar incentives.

These days, you can’t just pay them for their loyalty. You have to earn it. How? By offering intangible benefits along with competitive or above-average rates. People appreciate employers who invest in their training, solicit and act on their input, make them feel valued as members of a larger team and offer flexibility, when they need it. Let your actions show that you care about them as people.

Longer-term solutions take more planning and patience but will reap huge future rewards. Read this insightful story of how two enterprising young contractors from Jacksonville, Florida branded their roofing business, Reliant Roofing, and solved their skilled labor hiring crisis for good. You’re sure to find at least one gem of an idea you can apply to your own business.

 

Changing Demographics.

The baby boomer generation was the largest demographic in our country’s history. Their hardworking parents fueled the post-WWII economy and, leading by example, instilled a strong work ethic in them. The attitude was a “can-do” one of rolling up their sleeves and doing whatever was necessary to succeed. There was value in all work, including the trades, and a singular focus on achievement.

Now the aging boomers are retiring from the workforce. Their kids and grandkids grew up in a very different world, where white-collar college education was valued and preferred over vocational training and technological advancements reduced reliance on manual labor.

Does this mean that millennials and members of Gen X are lazy? Absolutely not! But their world view and intrinsic motivations are very different than the boomers’ were. If you want to attract and retain them, you need to understand and respect what those differences are.

Millennials are collaborative and tech-savvy. They weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths but with a device in their hands, the first “internet generation” to grow up with computer technology and cell phones from birth.

Millennials have global options and unprecedented mobility. They’re not restricted by geography or time, so you can see how staying in one job or working on someone else’s schedule might not appeal to them. This mobility can be good news for you, though. Because they’re willing to relocate for the right opportunity, you can cast a much larger net, expanding your recruiting efforts farther afield.

While the boomers valued job security and a steady paycheck, millennials crave and actively seek out different experiences (including in their careers), being a part of something larger and making a difference. They are socially and environmentally conscious.

Their comfort and skill with technology could be very beneficial to your business, balancing traditional labor with digital tools to streamline estimating, ordering and introducing new methods of marketing such as social media, responsive websites and more.

Again, read how Reliant Roofing developed synergistic training between experienced roofers with manual skills and apprentice millennials with technical skills, leveraging both to the long-term success of its business.

This article in Construction Today offers further insights into attracting and retaining millennials. Pay special attention to the importance of mentoring and making their first day on the job memorable.

 

Reduced Immigration.

As mentioned in Section 1 above, construction workers born outside the United States comprised the bulk of the 40 percent who left during the housing crisis never to return.

In research conducted by the National Association of Home Builders, nearly 30 percent of all construction workers are non-U.S.-born. Roofers, specifically, are 43 percent foreign-born.

The exodus of non-U.S.-born workers has created a void. Demand for skilled tradespeople is high.

Enhanced border security between the United States and Mexico, proposed deportations as well as an increasing number of employment opportunities becoming available elsewhere are all contributing to the shortage of skilled laborers in the United States.

Since we can no longer rely on a steady stream of skilled nondomestic workers, the only solution is a homegrown one that will take some time but ultimately be worth the effort.

As an industry, and as individual business owners, we must address the next two factors: our current lack of vocational training and the public’s negative perception of the trades.

 

Lack of Vocational Education Programs.

For decades now, high schools have focused on preparing students for college education and white-collar professions rather than on vocational training and technical (not technological) skills.

Practical courses such as “shop” or “industrial arts” for boys and “home economics” for girls came to be viewed as sexist and subsequently stopped being offered.

Fortunately, the construction industry itself has been making inroads in setting up, sponsoring and/or funding apprenticeship programs to help bridge the gap between available jobs and the skills required to fill them.

Vocational skills are in very high demand and the pay is attractive, yet training lags woefully behind.

In June 2017, President Donald Trump announced an executive order to increase funding for vocational training and to create more apprenticeships. The proposed “earn and learn” programs would include some combination of on-the-job training and remuneration.

According to a White House official, third parties such as companies, unions and trade associations would establish industry-specific criteria for such training programs then submit them to the Labor Department for approval. An apprenticeship task force is also expected to be convened to gather additional skills-training input from the private sector.

As a business owner, your continued success depends on attracting and retaining skilled workers. Find out more about the many benefits of the American Apprenticeship Act and watch for ways you can participate or benefit from this and other proposed programs.

Everyone stands to benefit from this proposed legislation. Students could earn a living wage rather than incur massive debt while they learn valuable, high-demand skills that virtually guarantee them employment upon graduation.

Employers could have the opportunity of experiencing these students’ skills and work ethics firsthand while they’re learning on the job but before taking them on full-time.

Remember also that apprentices and students are not the only source of available skilled talent. There are very active war veterans of all ages who are able-bodied, willing and disciplined workers. They may already have exactly the kind of skills you’re looking for; many more will have the capacity and desire to learn them.

War vets are disciplined team players who take pride in a job well done.

You don’t have to wait until that executive order is passed, either! Why not approach a local high school, building supply store, organization like Habitat for Humanity or Junior Achievement to offer your own apprenticeship program?

Or take disadvantaged youths off the streets, assign them to an experienced roofer and teach them some in-demand marketable skills that they can make a career out of one day. You’d be giving them hope for a better future while building community goodwill and your business.

 

Public Perception of the Trades.

Before we can implement any of the activities listed above, we need to change the negative perception that young people have of the trades. It’s not surprising that this idea exists, given that high school curricula and career counseling tend to stream students into academia and white collar professions or that young people haven’t learned to work with their hands at home or at school.

In an article entitled Why Don’t Young Americans Want to Do Construction Work?, columnist John McManus suggests it’s less a matter of money than one of intrinsic motivators such as autonomy, mastery and purpose that are perceived to be lacking. Based on a national survey of 18 to 25 year olds cited in that article, Rose Quint found that “the majority of young adults (74 percent) say they know the field in which they want to have a career. Of these, only 3 percent are interested in the construction trades.”

According to Reid Ribble, CEO of the National Roofing Contractors Association, the public is unaware that the roofing industry is at the forefront of the sustainability movement, having pioneered zero-waste jobsite policies and developed “cool roofs” for energy efficiency. He says, “Fully one third of commercial roofs are actually white. These are clean roofs!”

Roof of IKO Cambridge Cool ColorsTM in Dual Grey, available nationwide. Four other Title 24-compliant Cool Colors are available in California and in limited West Coast markets.

Students who are concerned about the environment could find purpose and a direct connection to possible solutions by working in the roofing industry, provided we do a better job of communicating the potential our business has to offer.

Millennials often shun the trades for other misconceived notions; e.g., that there’s no upward mobility, obvious career path or money to be made. We need to reposition the roofing business as the entrepreneurial opportunity it truly is.

Volunteer to speak at a local high school career night and open their eyes to possibilities they won’t hear about from anyone else.

Tell them how apprenticeship may be the entry-level position but, with experience, workers can literally climb the corporate ladder in the roofing business to positions of leadership.

Share your own story of how you did just that and went on to start up your own successful company. Let them know that roofing businesses can potentially generate millions in revenue while providing employment and a very worthwhile service to customers.

Assure them that there’s a huge, unmet demand for qualified roofers. You could even offer part-time positions on your crews to expose them to the job interview process, provide helpful feedback on their presentation skills and, if they meet your apprentice job requirements, take them on.

Nothing encourages loyalty and service more than someone who takes the time, believes in you and gives you a chance.

Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Records, Virgin Mobile, Virgin Air and other companies advises, “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.”

How are you finding skilled laborers for your roofing business? Please share your challenges and solutions with your colleagues.

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