I have heard success gurus say that it doesn’t matter what you do, because if you are the best at what you do, money will follow you. I think this statement rings true to all building construction practitioners. It is a fact that skilled and hardworking Masons, Plumbers, Electricians and Roofers do enjoy a decent livelihood. Thanks to the permanent need of shelter in the affairs of man, there is always a steady demand for their services. It follows, they only have second hand stories about living from hand to mouth because their jobs promises and delivers a good paycheck , mastery of useful skills that can help them advance in their profession or start a small business, autonomy of working outside ,minimal time spend in formal learning to acquire a diplomas and relaxed work regiment because the work is seasonal.
Having said that ,you would be forgiven for thinking that the sector is experiencing labor surplus or at the very minimum, it is not a difficult matter to find and hire for example a skilled Mason. Boy, how dead wrong you would be, because the exact opposite-labor shortage-is what obtains at many building construction sites around the country. In fact going by reports reaching the media the biggest worry for building construction, now is insufficient supply of skilled labor. For example, it has been reported that Kenya has more Structural Engineers and Architects than Skilled Masons , Electricians and similar trades professionals . That is almost (almost!) unthinkable. We should be having fewer Architects and not the reverse!
What this boils down to is this: A majority of young people in this country do not like the prospect of working in building construction and are steering clear of it.From the look of it, this sorry state of affairs has been around for a long time and has been getting worse by the year ,until now when it’s almost hitting a crisis level . Which is why the Federation of master builders was reported last week by Business Daily Africa “decrying the shortage of skilled labor in building construction subsector”. This begs the question, why?
I took some time to look into the issue and here are my thoughts on why: Most of the blame goes to our education system that has told and keep telling all young people in the county that the only route to success is through a University. That is why schools are rated on the basis of number of students who qualify to join a University. This social engineering has created a big perception problem for the sector. A majority of construction workers are seen by all and sundry as losers and those who go through a University as winners. This further feeds another perception: that building construction work does not pay well. These are ideas that you will quickly discover are false and misleading either when you begin to build your own starter home or talk to some of the skilled Masons and Carpenters who work on rich people’s homes and properties in major towns and cities around the country . My point is, we need to start promoting building construction work in the school system to undo and correct this bias and damage.
Number two, is the fact that most of the build environment work is done outside and is either manual or physically demanding. For example , the roofer has to swing a hammer to fix the ceiling joist on the wall-plate and crawling on common rafters to nail the shingles on the roof. This is, apparently not appealing to the youth because they have been drilled to expect white collar jobs after finishing school. What they do not know is that some of these white collar jobs do not offer better pay compared to these physically demanding construction jobs that are done outside where there is no air conditioning. I don’t know if it is just me, but I think better pay should trump any idea about working inside. An all-round education system can eradicate this kind of misleading thinking among our youths. Moreover a lot of construction work has been automated like the use of concrete mixers , vibrator and factory prefabricated building materials. This means this work is increasingly less depended on physical strength. And oh, did I mention that you spare yourself at least three hours of Gym workout per week? Yes, that true – a kind of bonus of manual work!
On the heels of foregoing is the issue of lack of borrowing best practice from other countries. In the USA for example small and big construction companies have apprenticeship programs through which high school graduates train on the job under a skilled Masons or Carpenters. These companies invest their own funds in these initiatives ,because they recognize that ample supply of skilled building construction workers is in their best interest. In Kenya, this phenomenon lacking and need to be borrowed. To kick start the idea, government should provide tax incentives to encourage developers, contractors and building construction companies to set up their own mentoring and on job training programs. Take it from me ,this would wean this country off our over-reliance on tertiary institutions like Kabete Technical training institute and Mombasa institute of technology to supply skilled workers to the sector. Only then can we begin to say we have put a handle on this bizarre labor shortage issue in a country with high unemployment.
On another level there is the problem of treating building construction work in an informal manner. This year alone it was report in the media that the sector created 163,000 jobs for Kenyans. This is a big contribution to the economy that calls for the sector to treated with formality and respect it richly deserve. For a start , the National Construction Authority(NCA) should come up with a standardized fair and legal pay scale and terms of service that should guide both stakeholder and the public in general. The powers that be , also should look into sick leave , injuries and insurance with the aim of making them part of the things that will make building construction more appealing to youths who are growing up in a gig economy.
Another thing that can make some young people to see red is the small matter of the need to follow work from one construction site to another. But they need to learn that this is not unique to construction. As matter of fact following work like farm hands is also experienced by Pilots, drivers, Architects, civil engineers and salespeople to mention just a few professional who complete their work assignment by traveling from one region to another. And they enjoy it.
Lastly , I think Builders and contractors are doing more harm than good when they hire unqualified Masons and plumbers in order in order to cut costs. Driving up business volume by giving great deals to customers and then turning round to underpay the construction workers because they are un-qualified, only serves to makes the problem worse. This is because on the one hand this practices removes the incentive for future worker in industry to get proper training . And on the other hand it hurts the customer who has to content with at best second rate work and at worst prohibitive rework costs. Both of these make building construction un-sustainable business- in the long run.
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Additional sources:Builders association of America