Aging Construction, Maintenance Demographic Calls for Extra Care, Safety

Workers who build apartments and other construction aren’t getting any younger. Neither are those who maintain them.

In an industry hard-hit in recent years by labor shortages, the median age of men and women who hammer, saw and build roads has crept to 41, according to an assessment by the National Association of Home Builders of the 2015 American Community Survey.

Since the Great Recession, the construction industry has gradually aged, with builders on pace to equal or eclipse the average age of the U.S. worker. Four years ago, the U.S. construction workforce finally crested: NAHB noted in its review of the 2013 American Community Survey that the average age of construction workers (42) was older than the average age of the overall workforce (41).

Construction industry getting older amid labor shortages

The upward tick is a result of aging by attrition. Unlike other professions that tend to get younger over the years, construction workers are getting grayer because younger people are choosing other fields. Also, the industry hasn’t fully recovered from the many junior tradesmen who dropped out when construction slowed eight years ago.

Before the downturn, the average age was 40.4. Driving the increase in median age are those who survived slower times. Many older construction workers today are managers and supervisors who typically work in the Northeast. They represent, perhaps, a wiser, more knowledgeable workforce that can help mold the industry as it attempts to overcome a labor crunch.

Talk to most apartment developers and they’ll tell you getting something built in recent years has been no picnic because there aren’t enough crews to go around. Projects have been delayed days, weeks and months waiting their turn for labor to show – particularly frustrating in a market where demand has outpaced supply.

Recognizing that the industry needs to get younger, the Associated General Contractors of America has created a Workforce Development Plan that promotes more technical and trade training. The goal is to connect with local schools, educators and administrators in order to promote careers in construction.

That’s a step in the right direction to sprinkle construction with the fountain of youth, but it will take years for the industry to get younger. Already older workers will age, increasing their risk of injury – even death – in a profession that already has enough casualties.

Rate of injury, death growing among older workers

The Bureau of Labor Statistics 2015 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries notes that the construction industry once again led all industries in deaths. Up 4 percent over 2014, the 937 deaths were the highest since 2008.

The rate of fatal injuries of workers older than 55 has grown, and in the last two years reached record numbers. Deaths of workers 55 and older jumped 9 percent in 2014 year over year to 1,621, the highest ever reported by CFOI. In 2015, BLS reported the second highest total of deaths (650) of workers 65 and older since the national census began in 1992.

Younger workers are far less at risk. In 2009, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) noted that the death rate for 55 and older workers was nearly 80 percent higher than that of construction workers under 35 in 2007.

Most construction-related deaths, regardless of age, result trips, falls and slips. According to the 2015 CFOI report, accidents on roofs led to most of the 106 construction industry worker deaths. Half were attributed to roof edges and 89 involved using ladders.

Let’s face it. The older we get, the more we’re prone to tripping and falling. Walking on a pitched roof or near its edge is particularly hair-raising.

As maintenance technicians age, safety becomes even more important

Multifamily housing faces a similar dilemma as its maintenance employees age. While there are no industry statistics available on the average or median age of apartment maintenance technicians, the median age of U.S. maintenance workers for commercial, industrial and other tangible assets in rental and leasing is 41.9. Growth of the industry’s labor force is only moderate.

Maintenance is not child’s play and comes with its own set of risks. The 2015 CFOI report notes that fatal injuries among building and grounds cleaning and maintenance workers rose 15 percent to 289 in 2015, an all-time high. Most deaths involved maintenance grounds workers.

In the last seven years, NIOSH has called for improved safety for older workers, especially in physically demanding jobs like construction. Multifamily leaders should call for the same for its maintenance professionals.

There’s no question that younger workers today seek jobs that don’t require elbow grease. Just read the latest employment data. And there’s little hope that will change anytime soon.

All the more reason for the construction and maintenance industries to take extra care. As always, make safety a priority.


Contributing Editor, Property Management Insider
President, Ballpark Impressions, LLC

author photo two

Tim Blackwell is a long-time publishing and printing executive in the Dallas/Fort Worth area who writes about the multifamily housing and transportation industries. He has contributed numerous articles to Property Management Insider, and worked as a newspaper reporter in the D/FW area. Blackwell is president of Ballpark Impressions, and publishes the Cowcatcher Magazine. He is a member of the Fort Worth Chapter/Society of Professional Journalists.

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