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Labor Shortage Survey: Who's Leading? Where's the Solution?

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Labor + Trade Relations

Labor Shortage Survey: Who's Leading? Where's the Solution?

The shortage of skilled labor for housing construction remains at or near the top of what keeps home builders up at night. These survey results show what's being done—or not—to address it

By Rich Binsacca, Editor-in-Chief May 31, 2021
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Home Innovation Labs and Pro Builder survey results reveal what home builders are doing about the skilled labor shortage. | Photo: Patasgrunge / Pixabay

The shortage of skilled labor for housing construction, namely rough and finish carpenters and framers, but also masons, drywallers, and roofers, remains at or near the top of what keeps home builders up at night ... and largely unable to build fast enough to meet demand for new homes.

The Skilled Labor Shortage: Whose Problem? Who Has the Solution?

This is not a new problem, and the current solutions are neither easy nor a fast fix. Not only are seasoned workers aging out, but younger workers entering their earning years have been systematically steered to higher education (read: “college-for-all” policies) and the allure of careers in technology-related fields.

So what are builders to do? In collaboration with Home Innovation Research Labs, we asked home builders what they’ve done internally to lessen the impact of shortages; who they consider best able to lead the restoration of the skilled labor pool; and which long-term solution has the best shot of reducing the impact of the shortage.


The results, based on surveys conducted in late March 2020 and almost exactly a year later, reveal a stubborn reliance (and trust) in legacy recruitment and training methods, such as student and adult vocational training (and increasing support of those efforts with time and money) while using better pay and benefits to attract new workers and retain the ones they have.

The data also points to a worsening problem: In 2020, more than one-quarter of builders (26.3%) reported they were not experiencing a skilled labor shortage before the pandemic and were doing “nothing” internally to address it; a year later, only 15% said that. As a result, builders have been spreading their efforts to rectify the situation across a broader swath of actions and possible solutions, including more labor-efficient construction practices.

METHODOLOGY AND RESPONDENT INFORMATION: The data reported here is the result of three questions added to a nationwide survey deployed quarterly by Home Innovation Research Labs regarding home building activity. The first survey, issued in March 2020, resulted in 465 qualified responses; the second survey, in March 2021, garnered 303 qualified responses. Sources are noted for additional data presented. 

Skilled labor shortage chart
The labor shortage for residential remodelers is often more severe than for home builders, though both are suffering for skills, especially early in the construction process.


Skilled labor shortage chart
Regionally, builders in the South report less of a skilled labor shortage and thus commit slightly fewer resources to all of the above efforts. Builders in the Northeast are particularly resistant to adopting labor-efficient construction practices.


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Just 2% of builders in the West region think they are best able to lead the labor restoration. Reliance on high-school vocational programs was consistent across regions.


Skilled labor shortage chart
More builders—especially those in the Northeast, at 15%—trust natural market factors to solve the labor shortage issue than they do labor-efficient solutions such as off-site construction; an uptick in “other” long-term solutions suggests the same perspective. Immigrant labor currently averages about 30% of the total residential construction workforce (for percentages by trade skill, see “Immigrant Labor,” below).


Skilled labor shortage chart
While all of these trades are feeling the pressure of skilled labor shortages (see “Where We’re Short,” above), immigrant labor accounts for relatively small percentages of the most pressing ones, namely framing labor, plumbers, and electricians. And, according to the American Community Survey, those shares are declining as more native-born workers enter the industry.


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Written By
Editorial Director

Rich Binsacca is editorial director of Pro Builder Media, Custom Builder, and PRODUCTS. He has reported and written about all aspects of the housing industry since 1987 and most recently was editor-in-chief of Pro Builder Media. rbinsacca@sgcmail.com


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