Extraordinary measures for merely ordinary results was just one way to sum up the growing gap between the demand and supply of skilled construction labor, according to a mechanical trades performance survey conducted by the Construction Users Roundtable.

"Construction owners will not avoid the impact of tightening labor supply and poor quality due to declining skill base," states the September issue of the MCCA Reporter. "The impact on the owner will be inevitable: longer schedules, escalating costs, declining quality, decreasing productivity, an aging workforce, declining safety performance due to excessive overtimes and the exertion of 'extraordinary measures' for merely 'ordinary results."

The roundtable, formed in 2000, is made up of construction and engineering executives representing major corporations who are among the largest consumers in the construction industry.

Last July, CURT conducted a simple five-question survey of its owners to assess their overall perception of the skill, availability, quality and productivity of the mechanical trades, both open shop and union. The mechanical trade was selected for the survey for two reasons: 1) CURT representatives were invited to address the Industry Day at the United Association's 49th Annual Instructor Training Program, Aug. 15, and the survey provided the latest and best data on the owners' perception of mechanical trade performance; and 2) CURT considers the mechanical trade one of the most important of the skilled trades and recently established a dialogue with the MCAA/UA in an effort to address issues of mutual concern.

The following summarizes the answers to each of the five questions:

What were the major issues with your mechanical contractors, union or open shop, during the past 12 months?

Not surprisingly, the availability of qualified personnel was the most common problem.

In addition, the level of training of those available workers was also a problem. In some cases, there were not enough metal welders to handle "exotic" metals and there were too many high-tech mechanics who were unwilling to perform less-technical work.

The third most commonly cited issue was the lack of quality work, which frequently increased costs.

"Most owners agreed that one of the more attractive characteristics of the union sector was its world-class training program; however, there seemed to be a disconnect between these highly trained workers and the seeming lack of high-quality work product," states the MCAA Reporter. "Of the owners who cited this as a problem, they explained that this poor 'worker attitude' was translated to the job site by high absenteeism rates, lackluster productivity rates and little or no allegiance to the project."

How well did the union mechanical workers meet your workforce requirements?

Some survey respondents indicated that the capability and skill of the workers seemed to be less than what it should be. A significant number said increasing uncooperative attitudes as well as productivity problems and an increase in absenteeism.

What skill level expectations, if any, do you impose on the mechanical trades working on your projects? Are you monitoring whether or not your expectations are being met?

Most respondents left it to contractors, the trades and the union apprenticeship programs to set the standards. In the case of open shops, certification from NCCER was the most common benchmark. Regardless of who sets the standards, few owners actually monitored whether these expectations were being met. Some owners said that quality assurance is a contractual responsibility of the project contractor.

How do you as an owner report productivity results to the mechanical trades?

Nearly half do not report directly to the trades. Of these, almost all said the communicate indirectly through their contractor or third party rep. Those who did communicate directly with the trades did so through meetings or with the individual BAs on specific problems.

The common problems reported are the following:

  • Chronic absenteeism
  • Late starts and early quitting times
  • Longer than necessary breaks
  • Other abused privileges
Most respondents said that better leadership, better fringe and wage packages and developing local labor resources would improve productivity