Like many industries, construction is dealing with a shortage of skilled workers both as the current skilled workers age and retire and as the industry competes for new, younger workers.
“A good share of our skilled craftspeople, overall, are at the ages of 55 or over,” says Todd Higgins, director of masonry for Neenah-based Miron Construction. “For the industry to keep pace with the demand, it’s estimated we need roughly 740,000 new construction workers nationwide for the next three years.”
While new technologies alone don’t necessarily solve the problem, they can streamline the process to help contractors get the job done with fewer skilled workers. And some technologies, like robotics, both reduce injuries and downtime and make the job less physically demanding.
One example used in masonry is Miron’s MULEs — Material Unit Lift Enhancers, which the company began implementing for its current Neenah High School project.
“It’s a great product and is definitely helping us out in many, many ways,” Higgins says.
With a combination of factors affecting the construction industry’s labor force — including the pandemic, a post-pandemic rebound, an aging workforce, and a shortage of skilled workers — implementation of the MULEs was a good opportunity for Miron.
“We knew something had to be done,” says Higgins, who took the idea to Miron owners Dave Voss and Tim Kippenhan. He says the executives bought into the concept right away because of its appeal in reducing injuries, fatigue and physical wear on craftspeople.
The company initially purchased 10 units and generators to operate them, investing about $75,000 in each for use in building the new high school — the company’s largest masonry project to date, which is expected to be completed in July 2023.
The concrete blocks used on the project weigh between 77 and 95 pounds, with each worker normally lifting 3,000 pounds throughout a shift. The MULE has a lifting capacity of 150 pounds and is calibrated to carry most of the weight — so a mason might only be lifting 10 pounds for each block.
“We’ve seen the efficiency pickup, the safety pickup, and just talking with the craftspeople that were using them, how they felt at the end of every day,” Higgins says.
So Miron decided to invest in 10 more, also used on smaller projects.
While the MULEs have been in use less than a year, Higgins says the company already is recognizing the value. “Most importantly, with the lack of workforce it’s definitely allowing us to maximize on our construction schedules,” Higgins says. “That’s where that’s really helping. But definitely they are paying for themselves in the long run.”
As with any changes in the workplace, the MULEs were initially a hard sell with workers who have been used to doing things a certain way.
“It’s the old saying: You cannot teach an old dog new tricks,” Higgins says. “But a lot of them were very open-minded. And once they used them, and how they felt at the end of every day — that’s really what sold it.”