Study Shows Nonunion Construction Firms Disproportionately Hurt by the Labor Shortage

A review of 2018-21 Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) surveys of more than 5,000 member firms nationwide reveals that nonunion construction firms are facing significantly greater workforce supply problems than their union counterparts and that these problems preceded the COVID-19 pandemic. The surveys, which include responses from 1,768 union contractors and 3,893 nonunion contractors, were analyzed by researchers from the nonpartisan Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI) and the Project for Middle Class Renewal (PMCR) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 
 
Read the report, “The Union Advantage During the Construction Labor Shortage: Evidence from Surveys of Associated General Contractors of America Member Firms.”
 
The Associated General Contractors of America represents more than 27,000 construction firms nationally. It releases its topline survey data each September and, since 2018, has released data specifically on union firms and nonunion firms. While ILEPI and PMCR’s analysis of survey responses showed nearly identical levels of concern between union and nonunion segments on supply chain and regulatory issues, it revealed significant differences on workforce matters.  Specifically, it showed that nonunion firms were an average of 16% more likely to report difficulty filling open positions, 13% more likely to report losing skilled workers to other industries, 21% more likely to report project delays due to workforce supply or retention issues, and 27% more likely to report their local workforce training pipeline as “poor” compared to their union signatory peers.

“While a tight labor market is clearly impacting the entire construction sector, the data shows that these issues are far more acute in the nonunion segment of the industry,” says ILEPI Executive Director and report coauthor Frank Manzo IV. “The superior outcomes reported by union firms reveal that long-term investments in job quality and apprenticeship training are every bit as critical to the success of construction employers as the ability to access materials, secure regulatory approvals, or win project bids.”
 
Through apprenticeship programs that are jointly administered with contractors and financed via collective bargaining agreements, construction unions train the vast majority of skilled trades workers in the United States.  Their tuition-free, “earn while you learn” programs attach new workers to in-demand construction careers, and have been linked to better productivity, safety, and employee retention outcomes. While the nonunion segment of the industry also offers apprenticeships, they are not nearly as robust because they rely on voluntary contributions from contractors or employer associations. 
 
“While collective bargaining agreements establish reliable revenue streams for apprenticeship training in the union sector, there is no comparable system in the nonunion sector,” says PMCR Director, report coauthor and Professor Dr. Robert Bruno. “In fact, nonunion contractors often have an incentive to forgo these long-term investments in order to win short-term project bids, which only invites labor supply problems down the line.” 
 
Using U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics data from the Current Population Survey, the report offers insight into why union construction jobs are performing better in the current labor market environment. On average, skilled union construction workers earn 42 percent higher wages, are 34 percent more likely to have private health insurance, and are 6 percent less likely to live in poverty or rely on Medicaid than their nonunion peers.  

“Economic outcomes for union construction workers rival those of other types of workers with college degrees, while outcomes in the nonunion side of the industry are more comparable with other types of workers with high school diplomas,” Bruno adds.  “In other words, union-signatory firms are simply out-competing the nonunion alternative.”
 
According to the ILEPI and PMCR analysis of AGC surveys, this competitive advantage extends to the industry’s efforts to diversify its workforce with more women, military veterans, and people of color.

“Over the last several years, state-level academic analysis of apprenticeship programs has shown that joint labor-management, or union-affiliated, programs are bringing in a greater share of women, veterans, and people of color into the construction workforce,” adds report coauthor and PMCR Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr. Larissa Petrucci. “Surveys of construction employers generally align with these findings and highlight the important link between investments in job quality and workforce diversity—not just workforce supply.”
 
The researchers noted that AGC’s survey results came at the end of a period that saw job quality both inside and outside the construction industry eroded through the adoption of so-called “right to work” laws designed to reduce union density and the repeal of state prevailing wage laws, which establish minimum wage and training investments on publicly funded construction projects.
 
“With our nation poised to spend more than a trillion dollars on new infrastructure over the next decade, the demand for skilled construction workers is only expected to grow in the years ahead,” Manzo concludes. “AGC’s survey data tells us that the industry can no longer afford to view unions and policymakers who advance labor standards as an adversary—but rather as a partner in attracting and retaining skilled workers without whom our economy cannot function.”

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