“It is clear that we need more housing, and we need it now.”
That recent quote by acting San Francisco Mayor London Breed is likely one that resonates with mayors across the country who are facing a crippling shortage of “affordable housing.”
With that quote as a charging statement, the city has taken some unprecedented steps to address their crisis. And the trade unions are taking notice. The Northern California Carpenters Regional Council has already rocked the union boat by signing a “wall to wall” agreement with local modular company Factory OS. This agreement allows those workers to cross “trade lines” and do everything from painting to plumbing, jobs usually performed by other trades. That move, in and of itself, signals a HUGE shift in the traditional union business model, and a HUGE validation that the modular construction movement is not simply a passing fad.
While the other local trades were not happy about this agreement, the writing is clearly on the wall. The traditional union model of separation of trades and duties (and pay) is not a model that is easily adopted in the factory, where work occurs more in teams and an assembly-line manner.
The local trades are now working with the City to establish a modular factory within city limits, presumably filled with union craft workers from various trades. While we must recognize the unions for adapting to the changing construction environment, we are also cautious about how this deal may work out. Who will own and operate the factory? Will there be separate deals with each trade? How competitive can a company operating in this manner really be?
Nevertheless, and without a doubt, industrialized construction that occurs in a factory is a much safer work environment than similar work performed on site. That move from on-site to offsite immediately takes away one of the union’s main talking points – that the union site is safer than a non-union site. We will let the traditional construction industry hash that argument out, while pointing out that factory work nearly eliminates one of the biggest safety factors – accidents from falls. We can also dramatically reduce accidents as a result of scaffolding. Two of OSHA’s top ten cited violations in 2017 are virtually taken off the board simply by moving construction indoors.
What about the advantage of having a more skilled labor pool, the unions would argue. Again, we will let the traditional industry debate whether carrying a union card makes a worker more or less skilled and safe.
The skills needed today for the construction industry to succeed and START showing signs of productivity improvement are not the same skills needed twenty years ago. Consider how other industries addressed labor shortages in the past. A certified auto mechanic is not required to assemble and build a car. Instead, a team of trained “assemblers” can do ten times the work in a fraction of the time once the process has been established. Likewise, computer engineers are no longer needed to assemble and build today’s computers and phones.
We still need people to design buildings. We still need people to test and measure for structural integrity. We still need people to assess if the building will meet the current code requirements. And we still need workers on the site for a substantial portion of the construction activity. We just don’t need them to complete 95% of the work on site, when over 50% can be done more efficiently in a factory.
We need those computer programmers in the factory. We can employ thousands of semi-skilled assemblers, with hundreds of skilled supervisors training and monitoring them. We can implement MUCH greater quality and safety control processes. We can employ more women, more disabled workers, and EXTEND the careers of many veteran construction workers by moving their work indoors. Industrialized construction is the answer to the long-debated industry labor shortage. And it’s an answer that our counterparts in Europe, Asia, and Australia have already figured out.
The trades should be applauded for breaking away from decades of entrenched policies, boundaries, and tradition, and recognizing that a change is needed. But they need to realize that the old business model won’t work well in the new construction landscape.
The same can also be said for any site-built contractor. Stop lamenting about the lack of skilled sub- contractors and start thinking about the modular manufacturer as a “super sub,” bringing multiple skills and tasks to the project under one contract. Think of how many MORE projects could be managed with more predictability and less headache.
Not everyone will agree with these comments. Not everyone agreed with Gutenberg’s crazy idea of a printing press, or the Wright brothers’ insane idea that man can fly, or Henry Ford’s assembly line, or Philo Farnsworth’s television idea, or Alexander Graham Bell, or Thomas Edison, or Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs, or… you get the point.
Started on January 23, 2018 by Tom Hardiman