What Came First: Technology or the Labor Shortage?

I like Facebook for one reason: It allows me to stay in touch with family members and longtime friends who live around the globe. I don’t rely on Facebook for news or politics, and I try to avoid reacting to or commenting on—and sometimes even reading—anything that may lead to a political discussion or may be mired in controversy. (I leave the debates for my Twitter feed but that’s a story for another day.)

However, on a recent Saturday morning, I couldn’t help but comment on a Facebook post made by a former colleague regarding her disdain for self-checkouts. She said she’s not getting paid to check her own items and she believes self-checkouts are stealing jobs. My former colleague noted that when only self-checkouts are available, she leaves her items on the self-checkout stand in protest and goes to another store.

My experience tells me self-checkouts are with us out of necessity, not to steal jobs but to fill in for a lack of workers. Twenty years ago, after I graduated from college, I worked at a bank in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the second largest city in the state and fastest growing at that time. Initially I was a teller, needing to pay my rent while I figured out what I wanted to do with my English degree. Eventually, I was managing the new bank branch opened in a super Walmart. I became friendly with the Walmart day managers who often complained about the no-call, no-show employees in every department, including checkers. In a city with a population of more than 120,000 people, finding reliable employees was a problem for Walmart. I don’t imagine it has gotten easier in the years since, so I shared my opinion with my former colleague on her Facebook post.

She and I went back and forth a couple times. I even used my involvement in this industry to underscore my point. I have not gone to a trade show since the 2008 housing crisis in which at least one manufacturer hasn’t unveiled a product or tool that assists with installation when fewer laborers are available. The skilled worker shortage is real in our industry, reported by such organizations as the Arlington, Va.-based Associated General Contractors of America and the National Association of Home Builders, Washington, D.C. I soon realized what seemed like a simple dialog on Facebook about what came first—the self-checkouts or fewer workers—could easily become a much deeper discussion about fair wages, immigration and, ultimately, politics. I decided to move on to viewing photos of my college friends’ kids and forgot all about this debate until Contributing Editor Robert Nieminen’s “Trend Alert” article hit my inbox.

In his article, Nieminen explains modular construction, which according to the National Institute of Building Sciences, Washington, “involves the process of planning, designing, fabricating, transporting and assembling building elements for rapid site assembly to a greater degree of finish than in traditional piecemeal on-site construction.” What’s driving modular construction? Tom Hardiman, the Charlottesville, Va.-based Modular Building Institute’s executive director, says in the article it’s the labor shortage, which “is not getting any better—it’s getting worse.” Hardiman predicts when many 50- and 60-year-old workers retire, “we’re going to feel the pain when there’s no labor left to build these [buildings]. That day is coming,” he warns.

Nieminen’s article is a fascinating dive into how technology has begun to change the construction industry, like it has all other industries. He asked his interviews whether modular construction will take jobs away from workers who want to continue constructing buildings the old-fashioned way. Read “Trend Alert” to see what they said and discover the opportunities
modular building practices afford our industry, including retrofits.

I brought up this chicken and egg debate with my husband, Bart. By day Bart is an agricultural lender; by night he co-owns a sports bar in the lake town in which we live. He has had difficulty hiring for the bar, particularly in the kitchen. Bart told me he’d always be willing to pay a higher wage to someone who’s reliable and does a good job. He’s a good person (why I married him) but neither of us can trust that every business owner feels the way my husband does. There may be some construction company owners (and retailers) who buy the latest tool or products requiring less laborers so they can lay off workers. I guess time will tell how modular construction affects laborers in the construction industry—and whether we’ll all be forced to check out our own items when we go to a store.

About the Author

Christina A. Koch
Christina A. Koch is editorial director of retrofit.

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