2020 wasn’t like any other year for the construction industry.
This time last year, no one could have predicted the challenges the world would face, let alone the construction industry. Covid upended every aspect of life and the economy. The industry confronted delays and cancelations. Work sites had to provide for distancing, masking, temperature checks and sanitation. Job site protocols had to change multiple times as regulations and knowledge about the virus evolved. Meetings with clients and sub contractors had to happen remotely. Meanwhile life at home changed dramatically with kids and parents staying home and online classes adding additional stresses… and then we lost cherished distractions like most professional sports as well. In spite of it all, the construction industry adapted and innovated to meet these challenges creating a new normal with benefits that might last well into the future.
Taking it in stride
Additional safety measures have meant that workers have to show up a few minutes earlier in order to get temperature and mask checks. It has also presented challenges in transporting workers and keeping the appropriate distances between workers. Many however have taken the new measures in stride. Safety was an important part of every work site even before Covid. Insuring your own safety and the safety of those around you has been an important part of the work culture in the construction industry so implementing new safety procedures is not something foreign to the workplace. This pandemic may have also shifted the stereotypical idea that if you’re feeling a bit under the weather, you work anyway. Now, the stakes are so high that the stigma has lifted.
Fortunately most of the industry has been considered an “essential” business. Most businesses were hit much harder than the construction industry.
Technology helped make construction more efficient. Unions have gone from posting physical notices for job openings, to online posting. There is an increasing use of closed circuit TV and drones to monitor safety and progress as well as monitor for theft on job sites. Proximity devices have helped with contact tracing. Attention to Covid safety has increased awareness of safety as a whole on job sites.
Robots have been integrated to help human workers and help maintain distancing. These robots mean that workers don’t have to break distance guidelines in order to move a compact but heavy load for instance, or move supplies around awkward obstacles.
While the industry did better than most in 2020, jobs were down almost 3%. Forecasts for 2021 are mixed.
Residential construction spending is forecast up 10%, volume up almost 6%, but 2021 nonresidential buildings spending is forecast down -11% leading to a decline in volume after inflation of -14%. Nonbuilding Infrastructure spending in 2021 declines -5%, volume drops 8%. *
Residential Job growth could be in the range of 150,000 but non-residential could lose 200,000 or more. There is good reason to hope that infrastructure projects will get priority later this year with the new administration and new congress focused on infrastructure projects.
Most of us are glad to see 2020 go! We can be grateful that the industry was not hit as hard as many sectors of the economy but it doesn’t comfort those who are still struggling. There is however reason to be hopeful. Vaccines are already being distributed. We’ve learned to get used to masks even if we don’t love them. Importantly, Covid has forced the industry to embrace new technology and beef up safety standards as well as improve the overall culture of safety. It has forced us to rethink how we work and that improvement in efficiency and productivity will benefit the industry for years to come.