Opinion: Attracting talent key to fixing skilled labor shortage

Connaé Pisani

As Detroit’s real estate and construction boom continues, those of us in these industries are working hard every day to keep the momentum going and bring the city to even higher heights of success.

But underneath it all lies a problem that must be addressed: The lack of properly trained skilled trades workers capable of executing construction projects in Detroit.

Especially among the millennial generation, many residents with these skills left Metro Detroit during the recession. While many are returning now as the economy has improved, there are still fewer skilled trades workers than the city needs in this busy era.

Detroit has historically been a place for automotive (assembly line) construction, but not as much the place for large-scale construction projects requiring skilled trades en masse.

With demand so high for skilled trades, construction workers are able to jump to the most lucrative job, forsaking others that may have immediate need and higher priority, but lower pay and budgets.

On a daily basis, I see how this shortage of skilled trades workers can lead to delays for construction projects that are fully funded. There is no lack of funds, as investors locally and worldwide remain bullish on Detroit. It’s the lack of available labor that slows things down.

There is a wealth of local talent in Detroit. However, with demand so high for skilled trades, construction workers have the "upper hand" to be able to jump to the most lucrative job, forsaking others that may have immediate need and higher priority, but lower pay and budgets.

Mega construction companies like Fluor, Jacobs and Bechtel offer competitive compensation packages that attract talent across the country and mobilize crews locally wherever their projects are commissioned. This allows them to retain talent, and workers travel with the company "wherever the work is."

Detroit lacks this type of leverage.

Our local mega firms include The Christman Company, Turner Construction, and Barton Malow. These are all great companies, but they are fighting to retain the same talent other small construction companies are fighting for.

Also, with the large construction boom in Detroit, it is difficult to find talent that is properly trained, licensed and insured to perform the work. People are skilled, but are they qualified per the strict state rules and regulations?

With the demand so high for these type of skills, it also makes it very difficult for residents to find the everyday help they need — for example, finding a reliable handyman in a quick time frame is rare unless you know someone. This also opens up the risk of individuals resorting to hiring unlicensed contractors due to lack of availability of licensed help.

Maintaining the positive trend for investment in Detroit hinges on investors seeing that work they initiate can be completed in a timely manner in the city. 

The best solution would be attracting to Detroit qualified talent from other cities, and continuing to grow the pool of talent to keep up with the increasing demand for skilled labor on all fronts — commercial, residential and industrial.

Staffing up appropriately and finding proper talent is key, otherwise companies will be more selective and turn away projects they otherwise would have taken, due to lack of staffing support.

We must also incentivize millennials to become trained, licensed and insured, while making it less cost-prohibitive, more affordable, and more easily attainable.

Connections are everything in this market: Who you know and who you can trust is what allows construction companies to sink or swim in a demanding market like what we have today in Detroit.

Connaé Pisani is founder and CEO of National Real Estate Management Group, a real estate investment, construction and property management firm that manages properties throughout the city of Detroit and beyond. She can be reached at info@nremg.com.