If construction companies need workers, they should turn to unions

This comment originally appeared in the Minnesota Reformer.

Competition is the foundation of our free enterprise system.

Just as the success of a business requires an ability to compete for customers, it also depends on attracting and retaining skilled workers.

As COVID-19 has disrupted just about every industry that relies on in-person or face-to-face work, there have been many complaints about “labour shortages”. But not enough talk about what it takes to compete for the workforce.

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Construction is the fastest growing sector of Minnesota’s economy. For the past 40 years I have worked in the industry and am the Past President of Amerect, Inc. We specialize in erecting structural steel and precast concrete for commercial and industrial buildings . This is highly skilled and physically demanding work that must be done in person.

Much of our company’s success is based on our partnership with union ironworkers, operating engineers and their hiring offices across the state and nation.

And every day, I hear from industry peers worrying about not finding workers with the skills needed for projects.

As our industry is tasked with building 21st century business facilities, an adequate supply of housing, and the critical work of modernizing our roads, bridges, schools, utilities and transit systems, this is the kind of claim that catches your eye.

Often, I ask them if they are parties to a collective agreement with the unions that supply us with the craftsmen we use on our sites.

Very often the answer is no.

Yes, unionized construction workers earn higher wages and most have health and retirement benefits.

They also complete years of apprenticeship training to learn their trade with the highest standards of safety and productivity. This training is financed exclusively by union members and signatory contractors through hourly contributions to the common apprenticeship fund. These joint apprenticeship programs produce 10 times more skilled workers in Minnesota than non-union programs, although they are nowhere near that level of overall market share.

In return for an hourly investment in workers – whose unions also bear the cost of administering health and pension programs – employers receive a stable supply of labour.

In the union-building model, rates of pay, working conditions and funding for apprenticeships are negotiated privately between unions and individual employers or groups of employers.

In return for an hourly investment in workers – whose unions also bear the cost of administering health and pension programs – employers receive a stable supply of labour. We have access to the specific skills and documented certifications we need, when we need them, whether they are heavy equipment operators, truck drivers, structural and ironworkers or carpenters .

The non-union side of the industry works very differently. There is no comparable funding mechanism for the recruitment and training of apprentices. A recent study found that workers earn up to 32% less and are half as likely to have health insurance or retirement benefits. Nearly 13% rely on food stamps – effectively a government subsidy to low-wage construction employers.

Ultimately, lower wages attract less skilled workers. And research has shown that these factors can contribute to lower productivity, more jobsite safety issues, and costly staff turnover and know-how issues. This is one of the main reasons why the researchers concluded that there was no real difference in cost between projects built by union and non-union construction workers.

While it is true that the construction industry needs to recruit more workers, it is also true that skilled trades unions and their signatory employers are not as struggling as our non-union peers. We have developed a scalable model that is competitive in the job market and expands the diversity of our industry.

The workers our industry needs are already there, if we are ready to invest in them. Many are in union halls ready to be sent to a job site. Others prepare in apprenticeship classes and trade schools. Still others are in high school and eager to learn more about the debt-free alternative to college that a career in the skilled construction trades can offer.

We need to do more to tell this story in schools, in government hallways – and at every point in between. We need to encourage more contractors to join collective agreements because the lower wage and skill model has not saved customers or taxpayers money, nor has it proven to be a effective recruitment and retention strategy.

Especially in today’s risk environment.

The partnership between signatory contractors and building trades unions is a win-win proposition for our workers, our communities and our bottom line. Not because we always agree, but because we have built a top-notch model to develop and compete for the skilled professionals without whom neither our businesses nor our industry can operate.

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