The industry is still reeling from a shortage or workers and materials, however statistically speaking, it’s probably that issues related to COVID-19 just accelerated an already problematic decrease of people working in the trades. It’s no secret that as many older painters and trade workers retire, there have been fewer young people entering those trades to replace them. An article on Forbes Advisor noted a steep decline just over the last couple years, from 2018 to 2020 there has been a 4.6% decrease in painters, construction, and maintenance workers and a 3% decrease in construction laborers.
When one trade is down workers, it can impact others, as Tim Kenney, president of WT Kenney Painting Contractors points out. The Massachusetts-based commercial painting company has run into its share of problems due to its own labor shortage, compiled with issues created by the trades that go on a project before him.
“Many large commercial jobs have completion bonds with penalties for not hitting the target date, often thousands of dollars every day it runs over,” he said. “What makes our job more difficult is that due to COVID, many contractors such as drywallers, electricians, etc. are taking projects knowing they can’t supply enough labor to hit their scheduled completion date, or that they can’t obtain the needed building supplies due to the supply chain issues.” When the trades on the front end of a project go beyond deadline, they squeeze the finishing trades into an even tighter timetable, he says.
“We often bring this dilemma up to the general contractors, but they don’t know how to solve it, and they give deference to the larger trades. This forces us to supply more labor to make the finish date. When you put 10 painters on a job that should require only six, the diminishing marginal return means you’re losing money every shift. And that’s solely due to the problem created by the other trades.”
That’s kept W.T. Kenney from bidding on some projects that they’d feel confident about under more normal circumstances.
Despite the labor shortage, Kenney still makes sure he hires quality workers. “As far as experienced labor goes,” he continues, “I find it rarely walks through the front door of the office. In the past this type of hire often hasn’t worked out long term. My practice is to concentrate on company culture, work environment and having a reputation of only hiring the best tradesmen. This attracts others to us. All is fair in love, war … and hiring the best painters!”
Meanwhile, supply chain bottlenecks have stymied the housing industry, and as we’ve just seen, what affects one trade can trickle down to the painting contractors who come in at the end. Last month the National Association of Home Builders brought the issue to President Biden, asking the White House to address three major concerns:
Redouble its efforts to address lumber price volatility, which has seen cash prices climb by more than 25% over the past month. (While lumber prices fell in May, the organization reported that costs have been inching slowly upward ever since.)
Address supply chain bottlenecks for lumber and other building materials and supplies that are causing significant delays and keeping home prices about 20% higher than they were a year ago.
Return to the negotiating table with Canada and develop a new softwood lumber agreement that will end tariffs on lumber shipments into the United States.
The labor shortage could even impact some states’ ability to effectively utilize funds from the infrastructure bill recently signed into law by the president. For example, Minnesota is set to receive about $6.5 billion in funding, but may have issues putting that money to work; a survey of 300 construction firms in nine states, conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, noted an increase of contractors defining labor conditions as “very tight.” The U.S. Chamber of commerce reported that nearly half of construction firms nationwide were having difficulty finding workers. As this funding become more available, however, contractors may find increased opportunities for major projects — if they can find the products to apply and the labor to apply it.
While economists predict that our supply chain issues should ease up next year, it may depend in rectifying issues in the trucking industry, yet another indication that no trade is working in a vacuum.