New York’s Coming Construction Tsunami

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The non-union construction workforce is not prepared.

A new report from the New York Building Congress estimates that construction spending in New York City in 2022 will reach $86 billion. That’s a 19 percent increase over 2019, which was the previous high (the pandemic caused a work and spending slow down in 2020 and 2021). Also this year the total square footage of construction hit a new record (2% above 2019).

This increase in spend and square footage implies that everything is rosy in the construction industry. But a new analysis reported in Crain’s says that the total construction workforce in the city is 139,000 people, down from 161,000 in 2019, which they attribute to workers choosing new careers during Covid.

So while there are increases in spend and square footage, this larger scope of work is being carried by a workforce that is just 86% the size it was in 2019. Significantly fewer workers are being asked to produce significantly more work.

And the workload won’t get easier any time soon. According to the Building Congress, construction activity is expected to continue to increase. They estimate that from 2022 to 2024, construction spend will total $270 billion, a 65 percent increase from the $165 billion spent from 2019 to 2021, adjusted for inflation.

Where have the workers gone?

The decrease in workers has apparently not come out of the construction unions. One union carpenter who spoke with Union-Built Matters said, “I haven’t seen a big exodus from my union. And the people I talk to in other unions tell me the same. Covid didn’t drive union people to leave. I think almost all of us stuck it out. And I think that’s because most of us believe our unions look out for us. They certainly did during Covid.”

This union member’s account is supported by a new Bureau of Labor Statistics report that shows while comparable industries lost a significant number of workers during the pandemic, the number of unionized construction workers stayed virtually unchanged.

Which means that the people exiting the New York construction industry are leaving non-union shops. This is not a surprise to the union carpenter we spoke with. “We hear the stories from the [union members] who came in from non-union. They suffered shenanigans at the hands of their bosses – not getting paid for entire shifts, being shafted on OT, no benefits, no sick time. I’d leave too.”

The worker shortage is compounded by the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), which will direct billions of dollars into updates of the nation’s infrastructure starting in 2023 and continuing for 10 years.

A sizeable increase in incoming work, plus a sizable decrease of the non-union workforce, adds up to what could be a disastrous 2023.

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A new McKinsey report estimates that the US construction labor force is alarmingly understaffed for the amount of work that is about to begin as a result of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that passed this year.

Who will do the work?

With a tsunami of projects expected, and a currently smaller workforce to handle it all, some industry watchers fear that non-union construction shops will rush to add thousands of lower-skilled workers to their crews to meet the demand.

All of these trends — ever-increasing projects, more lower-skilled workers with less experience rushed onto complex builds – could make 2023 a disastrous year for construction in New York. The best way to avoid that, now and in the future, is for developers and primary contractors to hire unions to put up their buildings. Every union member is highly trained, formed through long apprenticeships and on-the-job experience, focused on quality and safety. There is an investment that goes into each member before and after they step on a job site. It’s why union members don’t leave.

Hire union.

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