Volume 35, Number 4, April 2000


Working on the Workforce

what to do when the labor pool
becomes a puddle

by Steve Green

Think of it as the downside of the upside. The more the economy flourishes, the tougher it is to find good help. Contract glaziers know that for a fact. They’ve seen a steady shrinkage of the labor pool they draw on to fill about 36,000 jobs nationwide. Of course, the reason is that, at 4.4 percent (February, 1999), the nation’s unemployment rate is well below what economists define as “full employment,” making it tough to find workers at all, much less qualified ones. And, of course, that’s merely the average: unemployment in some parts of the country is as low as 1 percent. In fact, in a 1999 USGlass magazine survey of 6,000 glazing contractors, respondents indicated that they saw the shortage of capable people as their “top problem.”

One thing to bear in mind is that we’re far from alone; the rest of the business community is anxiously scanning the horizon as well. A survey by Wirthlin Worldwide, for example, reveals that business executives are more worried about a skilled labor shortage than a downturn in the economy or global competition.

 The Shallow End
of the Labor Pool

The overall labor shortage is expected to worsen for the very good reason that the birth rate is at its lowest ebb since the government began keeping records in 1909, virtually guaranteeing a tight job market for decades to come. If current estimates are correct, by 2002 there may be as many as 10 percent more jobs than workers.

In addition to the declining birth rate, a multitude of other factors contribute to the dwindling labor supply. Construction jobs in general are not perceived to be as glamorous as those in high-tech industries. Very few mid- and upper-level schools have concentrated programs to educate those entering our industry.

To gain some sense of the troubling effects of the decline in our labor resources, consider that (according to a July 16, 1998, survey conducted by Purchasing magazine) 69 percent of purchasing professionals attribute problems in supplier performance directly to skilled labor shortages in the U.S. economy. According to the report, buyers say that “understaffing, use of new or poorly trained employees, and rising use of temporary workers have all contributed to a deterioration in supply availability, product quality, and general service levels.” Labor shortages aren’t just slowing us down; they’re unraveling the very fabric of U.S. industry.

So, what’s a contract glazier to do? Is the labor problem simply insoluble? I don’t think so, but everything depends on what we do today—as individual companies and as an industry—because tomorrow has a way of showing up just when you least expect it.


Taking on the Future

Certainly one of the worst possible reactions to the current crunch would be to throw open the doors in desperation to substandard laborers. In fact, that would be suicidal. The glazing industry, as we know, is at a juncture when exactly the reverse—better-trained workers, not worse—has become essential.

In the event of product failure, scrutiny of the fabrication/installation process will continue to increase as the rigor of product testing at the manufacturing level goes up.

No, the last thing a contract glazier can afford is to downgrade the quality of his workforce. It seems to me, however, that there are numerous genuine ways of attacking the problem. Some of them could even have positive effects on the industry that would far outlast the current crisis.


When You Can’t Get
More, Get Better

As an industry in the throes of a labor shortage that will only get worse, we need to think about quality as much as, or more, than quantity. Better workers, better products, and better processes are the equivalent of more workers. Here are some qualitative improvements suppliers to the glazing industry can and should make:

• Focus on products that reduce labor and fabrication time and that can be manufactured as much as possible in a controlled environment, not on the construction site;

• Set up certification programs that will help ensure the quality of the glazier’s workforce and the proper installation of products;

• Provide project management tools to help contractors track projects and cost out jobs;

• Make estimating tools available to contractors;

• Invest in technology that speeds up the manufacturing process;

• Provide plentiful technological advice to help contractors, including complete product specifications;

• Create easy-to-install products accompanied by thorough installation instructions.

On the other hand, there’s much that glazing contractors and the industry, as a whole, can do to take the sting out of the crisis. Contract glaziers should begin broadening the labor pool now. The industry should come together to promote apprenticeship training programs with local technological schools and colleges. Heightened cooperation throughout the industry, greater attention to training, and more attention to standards will go a long way toward lessening the impact of the labor shortage.

The labor shortage will be hard on all of us, and it certainly seems destined to become a permanent part of the landscape. But if it inspires us to make qualitative improvements, it could also raise the industry to a whole new level.

In other words, our future may be short on labor, but it is full of possibilities.

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Steve Green serves as vice president of client relations of Tubelite Inc., based in Reed City, Mich. Glaziers Guild appears monthly with rotating authors.


Copyright 2000 Key Communications, Inc. All rights reserved. No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.