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Jason George: Labor shortage? That's because job quality matters

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Jason George
Contributed / Jonathan Conklin
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As growing numbers of employers warn of labor shortages , some have also taken that to mean that somehow Americans don’t want to work .

This is simply not true.

The so-called “Great Resignation” that followed the worst public health crisis in more than a century was not Americans suddenly deciding that they could live without a paycheck. It was about American workers deciding that job quality matters .

Operating Engineers, for example, perform highly skilled tasks with heavy equipment that is essential to all construction work. We operate and maintain the cranes, asphalt pavers and other heavy machinery you see at high rises and major infrastructure projects around the state. Even when performed by qualified professionals who have completed years of apprenticeship training, our work can be dangerous. It’s not glamorous, but because of the collective bargaining agreements that are privately negotiated between contractors and Minnesota’s Operating Engineer Union, these jobs deliver market competitive pay, health and pension benefits, and a tuition-free training curriculum that rivals most public colleges and attaches workers to long-term careers in our industry.

It’s also not a secret. The number of Minnesotans applying to join our apprenticeship program grew by 567% between 2012 and 2021 (from 170 to 964). And, our apprenticeship classes — the workers we were able to deploy to job sites around the state — grew by 304% over the same period.

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If you think this phenomenon applies universally to all parts of the construction industry, think again.

Research shows that union construction workers earn 32% higher wages, are 42% more likely to have health insurance, 13% less likely to rely on welfare programs like food stamps, and face 48% fewer safety problems at work than their non-unionized counterparts.

That’s why in today’s labor market, employers who have made fewer investments in their workforce are feeling the pinch the worst.

This week, an analysis of Associated General Contractors of America survey data from 2018-2021 showed that these distinctions really matter — and that employers who made fewer workforce investments were disproportionately feeling the pinch in today’s tight labor market. Completed by thousands of construction firms across our country, AGC surveys found non-union contractors were 24% more likely to report workforce supply problems, 45% more likely to report project delays due to labor shortages, 75% more likely to report losing workers to other industries, and 93% more likely to classify their workforce training pipeline as “poor” compared to their union counterparts.

These survey results also are especially significant, considering that research has shown that eroding job quality in construction simply does not yield project cost savings for contractors . Instead, it seems to be pushing more non-union construction workers to look for better jobs.

If you look beyond the construction industry, and beyond the union/non-union construct, there is even more evidence to support the expansion of job-quality investments across our economy.

In Oregon, a recent study found that the state’s fair workweek/predictive scheduling law reduced turnover and improved employee retention in accommodation, food service, and retail industries. Another recent study found that attaching prevailing wage standards to in-demand custodial work improved job stability, as well as wages. And there have been still other studies linking access to sick leave , affordable child care , and higher minimum wages to better labor market outcomes.

The absence of broad based policy interventions to raise quality for all workers has no doubt helped fuel the resurgence of worker organizing we are seeing at large employers like Amazon, Starbucks, and most recently, the United States Congress .

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All of which should demand that those struggling to find workers in this economy ask themselves the crucial question. It’s not “why don’t Americans want to work.” It’s “why don’t they want to work for me?”

Union construction contractors are less likely to encounter this question because of collective bargaining. It’s a roadmap that addresses both core business imperatives and core workforce needs. It aligns profitability and job quality, instead of needlessly pitting them against each other. And the skyrocketing interest in our apprenticeship program is proof that it works.

According to contractor surveys, the alternative leaves businesses struggling to recruit talent, retain employees, and deliver a completed product. In other words, this data is telling us to finally reject the false choice between competing for customers or workers. We can do both. And we should.

Jason George is the business manager and financial secretary of Operating Engineers Local 49, and a director of the Minnesota Construction Industry Labor and Employers Council (CILEC).

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