Skylines and suburbs are packed with construction cranes, but a serious shortage of skilled trade workers is creating a challenge for contractors and owners alike.

Commercial construction and development is at near-record levels across the United States, thanks to a strengthened economy. As of the third quarter of 2016, the volume of jobs, projects and other key industry indicators are all near cyclical highs. But a labor shortage could be threatening the seemingly-endless stream of commercial construction starts. A recent survey conducted by the Associated General Contractors of America found that 69 percent of contractors have difficulty finding qualified craft workers to fill key spots.

A dwindling skilled labor pool has driven down unemployment among U.S. construction workers to a 10-year low in July 2016. The average hourly wage for construction workers hit $29.98 per hour, more than 3.5 percent higher than in July 2015 and outpaced the national average annual wage growth rate of 2.4 percent. The resulting fierce competition for talent has left contractors feeling the heat, with some projects facing costly delays.

“Many of the construction workers who brought real estate to life during the 2005 to 2008 boom left the industry permanently during the global financial crisis,” says Todd Burns, President of Project and Development Services at JLL. “As a result, the construction labor pool today is 23 percent smaller than it was in 2007, and is showing signs of leveling out in terms of organic growth.”

Regional differences emerge in labor market outlook

Yet when it comes to labor challenges, not all markets are created equal across the U.S. Recent JLL research forecasts that, while construction costs are highest in the Northeast and West Coast major markets, construction volumes and job openings will have slowed in these areas in the latter part of 2016. Meanwhile, construction volumes in the Midwest and Southern markets are maintaining their steady upward trajectory.

Burns attributes the differences to greater volatility and faster reactions to financial markets in the pricier Northeast and West Coast markets. “The Midwest real estate market generally takes a bit longer to respond to market shifts, while the Northeast is very reactionary to financial news,” he says.

Other factors are also at play. “We’re seeing a big trend of corporate relocation to more affordable markets in the Midwest and the South, which is creating a construction boom for new office space,” adds Mason Mularoni, Project and Development Services Research Analyst.

Small labor pool leads to innovative solutions

The shortage of skilled labor is spurring contractors to adopt innovative strategies to win the battle for talent and complete projects with less manpower. While poaching laborers from competing construction sites remains rampant, some contractors are turning to online jobs platforms such as Hard Hat Hub and to recruit qualified construction talent.

Builders are also making an effort to expand the pool of available workers. “There’s more union hall recruitment happening than I’ve ever seen in this industry,” says Burns. “But contractors are also getting creative to attract people who don’t want to join a union, such as setting up non-union subsidiaries.”

While attracting skilled workers remains a top priority, firms are also turning to technology to fill gaps in their workforce. Computer modeling, GPS technology and drones that take photos of construction sites are among the tools that commercial builders are using to become more efficient and sidestep worker shortages.

Despite such measures, the U.S. construction labor pool is likely to remain squeezed in the near future. Data analyzed by JLL suggests that, even as some U.S. markets in the Northeast and West Coast regions begin to slow, companies can still expect to pay top dollar for skilled trade labor across many of the major markets, driving up costs and creating delays into the near future.

“To successfully keep projects on schedule, project sponsors should try to streamline project planning so that labor can be booked as early as possible,” advises Burns. “And I don’t see labor costs coming down in the near term, so companies will have to ride this labor cost bubble for the next couple of years.”