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The current labor shortage in the construction industry has been well documented and continues to be a key issue facing builders across the country. According to a February report by Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), the industry will need to bring in an additional 342,000 workers on top of normal hiring in 2024 to meet the demand. This is all occurring during a time when the construction industry is booming. Not only are contractors experiencing labor challenges, clients are building bigger manufacturing facilities than ever in an effort to “re-shore” in the wake of the supply-chain challenges during the pandemic. These companies are also experiencing the workforce pinch, giving the two parties a shared problem and forcing builders to get creative on projects to help attract talent for their clients. 

To complicate things further, a high percentage of the existing workforce is getting older. According to ABC, nearly 1 in 4 construction workers is older than 55 years of age and is contemplating retirement. This significant portion of the workforce leaving the industry is forcing builders to accelerate the training of younger staff members to keep the level of experience on projects elevated. As competition for a highly skilled workforce grows, general contractors are also concerned about retaining the staff they are training and not losing them to a project across town. Both hurdles, attracting and retaining employees, are especially difficult for industrial builders who need large workforces to complete projects on time. 

Recruiting and retention has become top of mind for manufacturers and builders alike. Both industries suffer from a skills gap, and technological advancements require an increasingly specialized workforce. The perception of these industries as physically demanding and lacking in innovation can deter younger generations from pursuing careers in manufacturing and construction. A solution to address these challenges is being implemented in projects across the country. Industrial contractors have zeroed in on a project’s design to find ways to incorporate employee-first features. Collaboration and mutual understanding can be fostered early in project planning and lead to improved employee experience, and improved recruiting and retention once facilities open.

Labor Landscape has Shifted Client Priorities

In the past, when a potential client approached a builder, the discussion about design typically revolved around efficiency and maintaining a tight timeline for the project’s completion. But, with the labor gap widening, builders and clients have had to shift their focus. Up to this point, the industry has turned to modern technologies, such as automated vehicles and machines that can be operated remotely or autonomously and to extending the pool of workers to part-time employees or temporary staffing to keep projects on track and facilities staffed. Solutions like these have helped lessen the blow but have not done enough to move the needle.

When projects are boiled down, one constant emerges with every new industrial facility: people. People drive projects and businesses, and nothing can substitute the human touch. With this in mind, companies are looking to take care of employees by building facilities that are flexible and adaptable, efficient and emphasize a sense of community. To establish an environment like this, the design of each new build must consider the worker’s experience at the jobsite as well as the future workforce at the facility when the project is complete. There’s no better way to accomplish this than to go straight to the source and engage the current workforce. 

For example, JE Dunn and one its clients, Southeast Toyota Distributors, tapped into their employees' knowledge to help design a new state-of-the-art industrial facility. By gathering feedback from the staff and connecting it with the expertise of JE Dunn’s team, the two parties were able to design a new facility that has increased processing efficiency by 12% and reduced safety incidents by 67%, while also providing spaces and amenities for their staff to improve work-life balance. 

The Employee Environment You Build 

A critical component when designing a new industrial facility with employees in mind is to start aligning with the builder early in the process. The sooner a contractor can be involved—even as early as site selection—the better. This allows both parties to share ideas and account for their respective workforces, providing insight that can be easily overlooked if only looking at plans separately. 

These projects are complex, with multiple stakeholders. Considering all unique needs during project planning can ensure a facility satisfies everyone much more down the road. To achieve this from the project onset, companies and clients alike are providing seats at the table for everyone. The goal of opening up the project planning stages to others is to understand the viewpoints of all workers and to align on plans that maximize efficiency, recruiting and retention, IT, security and safety. It may sound like an obvious strategy, but this project tactic during the design phase hasn’t always been the norm. Industrial facilities and project sites alike have long been decided at the leadership level, which can affect morale. By providing a voice to everyone, all employees will feel equal. 

Another method of developing equality onsite through a project’s design is through the use of common spaces. This space can be utilized to bring in different activities and games and provide lunch for the entire team. While they may seem minor, these details matter when designing with the employee in mind and creating a positive experience for the entire workforce.

Feedback from employees is a vital resource for every business and can enhance the atmosphere of a new facility. Contractors are able to leverage this input and then design industrial facilities that remain efficient and create a positive culture and environment. 

For example, on an industrial project in Macon, Georgia, YKK AP, a leading manufacturer of commercial façade systems and residential windows and doors, has teamed up with JE Dunn to build a new, 400,000-square-foot facility with employee amenities that enhance the day-to-day experience by maximizing space inside and outside the building. Features like break rooms inside and outside the facility were included to create community areas, along with basketball courts and walking trails to help employees relax and connect with coworkers. The aim with these features was to create a space that was different and more inviting than the big box manufacturing facilities of old. As a window and door company, the employees of YKK AP also urged for emphasis on additional natural light being added into the space to infuse more sunshine into the otherwise closed building. Touches such as these provide areas for workers to recharge and perform their jobs more efficiently.

Labor Gap is Putting Industrial Design on a New Path

The labor gap will continue to be an issue that all general contractors and their clients will have to navigate. Projects only move forward with a skilled workforce and a facility only operates as well as its staff. However, contractors and clients must continue to overcome these labor challenges by tapping into their most valuable resource, their people, and designing with employees in mind to ultimately build positive working conditions that both retain and attract the talent needed to build and work in the industrial facilities of the future. 


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