Workforce Challenges – How Innovation Can Help

Last month, nearly 300 members of MEREDA, the trade association for responsible real estate development in Maine, joined together to discuss the challenges facing the industry, which in spite of being the state’s number two driver of GDP, is being proactive about positioning for the future, in hopes of staying relevant.

“We take seriously our role in Maine’s economic, cultural, and built landscape, and are thrilled to converse about our health and posterity, and to position for continued and sustainable growth,” said Paul Peck, president of the board at MEREDA. “Real estate developers, architects, engineers, bankers, attorneys — we all play a pivotal role in the tourism economy, the livelihood of seniors, the infrastructure of our communities, and the vibrancy of our downtowns, to name a few; we don’t take that responsibility lightly. This conversation is a sophisticated turning point for our industry.”

Peck kicked off the event by asking a question: “With an aging population and fewer skilled crafts workers, how can the industry find workers to keep pace, never mind positioning for growth?”

“With an older infrastructure, record low unemployment, mounting regulatory hurdles, and a high demand for lifestyle properties, Maine faces considerable challenges,” responded John Dorrer, a labor economist and workforce analyst who has been tracking Maine workforce and labor market issues for over 40 years.

After painting a relatively bleak picture about the number and quality of workers available in Maine’s economy, Dorrer offered some solutions for businesses, including: 1) Put a succession plan in place to address retiring workers and how you’ll fill their positions, 2) Ensure that your wages are competitive to attract skilled labor, and 3) Look to navigate low social security payments to lure individuals back to the labor force with retirement-friendly hours and responsibilities.

Attendees gained insight into the impact new innovative techniques have on the labor shortage and on the real estate industry and learned about the demographic conditions that exist within the real estate industry; who’s leaving it, who’s joining it, the hiring and retention challenges.

Dorrer also broke down the numbers to offer outlooks on specific occupations and skill sets, including a run-down of what new opportunities exist for people coming into the industry, and how our communities and state will change as these new technologies enter the mix.

The afternoon consisted of a panel discussion with local experts who gave on-the-ground examples of how firms can embrace new technologies and methodologies to attract labor, meet quality benchmarks, and position our industry—and Maine—for growth.

That conversation, moderated by Andrea Cianchette Maker of Pierce Atwood, included: Ellen Belknap, president of SMRT Architects Engineers; Dave Thomas, project executive with Consigli Construction; and Ronald Cantor, president of Southern Maine Community College.

They each tackled various innovative solutions they’re employing to keep Maine’s construction and real estate sector relevant, including drones, robotics, 3D printing, LEAN principles, hiring and training strategies, and improved work culture.

Both Belknap and Thomas gave many examples and case studies of how investing in over planning is the key to reducing inefficiencies and waste. They said that doing so must be a good cultural fit, with Thomas offering that a company’s values and behaviors directly correlate to that culture.

Cantor seemed to agree, offering examples of how he and his team at SMCC have changed their culture to fit the intersection of needs of today’s students and employers, with revised and more flexible pathways toward certificates and degrees, and a more responsive recruitment model, including reverse job fairs.

“Today’s forum was a first step as MEREDA looks to help with Maine’s worker gap while ensuring that the integrity, quality, and economic relevance of our work is not compromised. We look forward to continuing that conversation,” said Peck.

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