Building construction labor shortages : Here are some solutions.

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.

©Copyright 2017 East Africa Little Hardware ltd.

Additional sources:Builders association  of America

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