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Keeping Labor Productive

Dwindling productivity is a major problem confronting the retail construction industry today. This loss of productivity can be traced, in part, to several key factors: increased design complexity, more rigorous government regulations and, most importantly, a diminishing trained work force.

With the creation of college-level construction technology courses, we are seeing many bright, well-educated individuals entering the work force at the project engineer and project manager levels. But there has been a steady decline of trained craftsmen coming into the trades.

This trend will continue and in the very near future become a major problem, with insufficient labor forces available to effectively staff a project. In fact, that time may have already arrived.

During the past couple of years, we have seen nearly 100 percent employment in the construction trades. This rate will probably continue for the next couple of years, as the nation's economy likely will stay vibrant for at least that long.

To understand the effect a labor shortage has in retail development and construction, you need first to realize that an opening date - whether for a store or a shopping center - is the only thing that is set in stone, regardless of how many delays are encountered prior to starting construction. In the past, it was common to accelerate construction schedules by bringing more workers to the job or by having them work double shifts. Today, a declining work force has made such a solution very difficult, and in some cases impossible.

For the first time in recent history, we are seeing projects that are not being completed by the anticipated opening date. Developers and contractors unaware of the difficulty of finding additional help proceed with their projects and assume the schedule can be accelerated as it always has been done in the past.

In addition to affecting the schedule, the diminishing work force impacts job site productivity. The first action to accelerating a schedule is to lengthen work days and hours, which alleviates the problem in the short run.

But numerous industry studies show that reduced productivity and below-standard workmanship result when employees are forced into prolonged periods of overtime work. With fewer skilled craftsmen in the construction trades along with a greater demand for their time, the industry suffers from a lack of productivity and pride in a job well done on many projects, even those not facing schedule problems.

Successful contractors can combat lost productivity by creating a job site atmosphere that motivates the work force to take pride in its workmanship. Such a tone conveys mutual respect and promotes a team alliance, thereby achieving project quality and meeting schedule requirements. It is often difficult to accentuate the positive side of worker motivation, but it is essential to eliminate the negatives.

Each project has a list of de-motivators: untimely supply of materials, tools and equipment; disrespectful treatment; insufficient recognition; incomplete drawings; unresponsive decision-making; restrictive procedures; insufficient cooperation between trades; and poorly trained supervisory staff.

The chain of command, from management to craftsmen, has grown too long and often involves too many people to have instructions conveyed accurately. The project organization should not be so rigid as to prohibit effective communications.

It is apparent that in the foreseeable future, the construction industry is not prepared to address and solve the labor-shortage problem. But the successful contractors of tomorrow will recognize the changes taking place in the construction work force and react by establishing a job-site motivation program.

The up-front involvement of the subcontractors and work force with their understanding and commitment is vitally important. Preplanning that involves the owner and design team also reduces the amount of potential changes that can take place during construction. The recognition and respect for labor workers who do a good job will result in the extra effort needed to complete the project.

Poor productivity and worker attitude is a problem, but construction labor forces can be motivated to achieve higher proficiency. The future of the industry belongs to those who recognize the problem and are willing to develop a corporate philosophy to address the situation.

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