Labor shortages, inflation vex civil contractors, but optimism remains

Labor shortages, inflation vex civil contractors, but optimism remains

Federal infrastructure funding is rolling out more slowly than expected, inflation is cutting into public works budgets and skilled labor shortages are resulting in lost work — nonetheless, civil contractors and engineers are positive about the industry’s outlook, Dodge Construction Network’s Civil Quarterly 2023 Issue 1 report found.

The data and analytics firm also dug into BIM trends and surveyed its audience about something new in this issue: mental health. Here are some highlights from the report.

Labor shortages mean work turned down, but optimism is up

Finding skilled workers is a persisting problem in construction, and per a new analysis by Associated Builders and Contractors, looks set to worsen as a large swath of workers reach retirement age. The Dodge report goes into this problem in more detail. Of civil contractors surveyed, 72% said they struggled to hire skilled workers; since the second quarter of 2021, that number has hovered around 70%.

Labor gaps are affecting project timelines as well as how much work contractors and engineers can take on: 58% of civil contractors said they are turning down work due to a shortage of skilled workers, up from 50% in the fourth quarter of 2021. This labor shortage may “impact the degree to which the U.S. can fully capitalize on the extra infrastructure funding that has been allotted,” according to the report.

As workarounds, companies are asking workers to do more, putting in higher bids, and/or letting schedules run long, according to Donna Laquidara-Carr, industry insights research director at Dodge Data & Analytics.

“But is it going to choke the pipeline? I think contractors are too committed to getting work done to see that happen,” said Laquidara-Carr.

She is buoyed by the fact that, despite rumblings of a recession, of civil contractors surveyed, 26% expect a significant increase in revenue, and 14% expect a significant increase in profit margins within the next 12 months. That’s more optimistic than the third quarter of 2022, where those numbers stood at 20% and 11%, respectively.

BIM and digital twins gain popularity

Construction is notoriously slow to adopt tech, but the use of BIM and digital twins is growing. Dodge found that 78% of civil engineers use BIM, up from 66% in 2020. Those percentages are lower among civil contractors: 60% don’t use BIM at all.

Usage rate also depends on the size of the civil contractor, with 63% of large contractors using BIM, 41% of midsize contractors and 14% of small contractors. For small contractors, BIM use actually declined from 20% in 2020.

BIM is still not commonly used on infrastructure projects, according to the report, even though it has the potential to transform civil work. Dodge found that most civil contractors and engineers have had owners request BIM models, even if it’s not a common experience. Only 6% of contractors and 13% of engineers reported that this happens on more than half their projects.

Interest in digital twins is increasing and driving owner requests, said Laquidara-Carr. Digital twins, representations of a physical asset or system which enables virtual interaction, can be used not only in the construction process but also by owners for operations and maintenance after project completion.

“Contractors are very driven by what their owners are looking for,” she said. Right now, going from BIM to digital twin is nice to have, but “if this takes off with owners, they are going to be expecting digital delivery.”

New focus on mental health

For the first time, Dodge Construction did a deep dive into mental health in the civil engineering and contractor world — a problem that disproportionately impacts the industry. Because of the pandemic, construction has become more willing to discuss and address suicide, addiction and other mental health challenges, according to Laquidara-Carr.

“Mental health is starting to be an area that the construction industry is really paying attention to,” said Laquidara-Carr. She also found a “deliberate acknowledgment of opioid use and the fact that companies can’t just ignore it.”

The report found that 53% of large civil contractors provide some kind of resources for mental health, and of those, 19% made addressing mental health issues a priority. Those numbers are lower as the size of the company shrinks: 41% of midsize civil contractors have resources to address mental health as do only 20% of small civil contractors.

Respondents’ most-used mental health resources are employee assistance programs, which provide information on where to find mental health websites and programs. Despite their investment, few surveyed believe that any of these strategies work. While stigma about seeking help persists, Dodge found that 59% of civil engineers believe that company leadership visibly prioritizing mental health would reduce that stigma.

These discussions, actions and awareness are “a positive sign for the construction industry and bodes well,” said Laquidara-Carr. “Even though it’s not ‘mission accomplished,’ it’s being on the right path.”

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