The shortage of skilled construction labor has been turning a lot of heads recently as a serious constraint in the housing recovery. As the pace of construction heats up, builders increasingly struggle to find skilled trade workers, particularly framers and other carpenters. The problem is likely more economic, than political, but nevertheless remains a serious pain point for our industry.
Apprenticeships may be one answer, as John McManus reports in BUILDER: Rightfully, builders have long seen apprenticeships as a ramp-way into a livelihood that solves, not only for home building's labor shortage problem, but addresses the "student debt" tsunami, and, perhaps most importantly, adds fresh new ideas and perspectives to practices that are largely the domain of ancestral knowledge and belief.
For others, partial prefabrication - an evolution in honing production efficiencies - is also part of the solution, as Jeffrey Sharpshott reports in the Wall Street Journal:One byproduct of the labor shortage is a sharpened focus to find ways to get by with fewer or less-skilled workers. Prefabrication, which can help some builders who are having trouble recruiting, could reshape the composition and size of the industry’s workforce and put more workers indoors than before.
In his WSJ report, Sharpshott provides several examples of construction firms that have resorted to prefabbing all or part of the production process, including one Ohio-based company specializing in "prefab bathrooms, kitchenettes and other repeatable rooms."
But could replacing workers with machines actually win the day? Meet SAM, a "Semi-Automated Mason" brought to our attention by David Frane at Tools of the Trade.
Does this sort of technology worry you as a construction business owner? Will it be harder for small construction firms to compete with corporate builders that have enough capital for high-priced technological solutions? Will construction robots sound the death knell for the traditional craft builder? Or is this just another high-tech tool, like a router or pneumatic nailer, that can provide faster production and greater precision? (Can we really imagine going back to chisels for let-in hinges or nailing off sheathing by hand?)
In his book, With Our Hands: The Story of Carpenters in Massachusetts, Mark Erlich of the Carpenter's History Project tells about one Connecticut carpenter, J. W. Brown, who in the early 1900s worried that the carpenter - who in the mid-19th century was an artisan who trained for a lifetime - had become simply a "tradesman" and a "pieceworker" who might never be in a position to hire his own apprentices.
Fast-forward to the early 21st century and it's not too surprising that robotics, along with prefabrication, are beginning to provide increasingly efficient modes of production. We might even ask what took so long?