By Debra Hazel, President of Debra Hazel Communications
The first ICSC event I’d attended in nearly two years, ICSC+CenterBuild in Phoenix, Arizona in early December, was unusual in several ways. It certainly was smaller than normal — an event that attracted more than 2,000 attendees in the years before COVID-19 had fewer than 900 registrants, not all of whom showed up. (At least one speaker Zoomed in.)
But the mood and conversations are what differed most. I’ve attended many of these conferences over the years, as an editor and now for my own consultancy. CenterBuild (for short), a meeting for design and construction professionals focused on retail real estate, has always been among my favorites because it has been about ideas — optimistic, energetic and focused on how future trends and technology will affect the retail real estate projects of tomorrow.
The mood this time was one as much of relief as optimism — that events were beginning again (it was the first ICSC event for many since the start of the pandemic), pleasure at seeing old friends and a sense that the industry was working toward a new normalcy.
But what was most interesting was that many conversations, both in official panels and at casual catchups, was the shift from focusing on the future to focusing on the challenges of the present. (I didn’t attend as a reporter, so I won’t quote private conversations directly.) Chief among them: who’s going to do the physical work of executing these visions?
COVID-19 has exposed the weaknesses in the retail real estate design and construction process, and they can no longer be ignored by talking about driverless cars, the role of e-commerce and conversions to mixed-use, many observed. Granted, the latter two topics were still the subjects of panels and conversations, but more talk was dedicated to practical realities.
Supply chain issues are plaguing the industry to some degree, but that can in time be fixed. The materials are there. Labor is another problem entirely.
The simple truth is that there aren’t enough skilled tradespeople available to do the actual building. And that won’t be as easy or quick to fix.
In some ways, a similar problem took place after the retail real estate crisis in the early 90s, when credit shut down after a period of tremendous and sometimes ill-advised growth in the business. Many junior-level marketing and management professionals were laid off as companies downsized to survive. It kept individual developers going (until many of them either became or were acquired by REITs). But a few years later, when times were good, these same companies were scrambling to find qualified mid-level managers and marketers for their properties. They either had to hire (and spend more money) for an overqualified senior professional or take a chance on someone less experienced.
The same is happening now in construction, only partly because of COVID-19. The pandemic put a pause on building for a time, but the shortage of skilled labor really has been the result of years of perception problems and a lack of past outreach to recruit new workers. A college degree has been touted for decades as a sure step to success and wealth — apprenticing as a carpenter, electrician or welder, not so much. High schools long ago dropped shop classes. Yet these skills can provide a very nice living in many areas. Some serious outreach needs to take place. In addition, those wanting to enter these trades had other obstacles — in the past, personal connections (a relative, close acquaintance) were needed to get into the field and a coveted union membership.
Meanwhile, the experienced skilled workers are looking at retirement or took the pandemic-related downtime to explore new, less physically demanding industries. The result: not enough qualified people to get the jobs done.
Now, leaders in the design and construction industries are acting. At a town hall session, multiple attendees said they had instituted scholarships and were reaching out to high schools and junior colleges about the opportunities available in skilled trades. Others noted that they are looking for a more diverse workforce, and working on outreach to communities of color, women and more. (An interesting side note — someone even brought up that attitudes and behavior need to change so that women and others will feel safe on a construction site, the first time I’ve heard that mentioned.)
It should be noted that the problem isn’t limited to the retail sector, and some design firms are already taking action to expand the construction workforce. For example, New York City architecture firm Eastman Cooke & Associates is collaborating on a training and apprenticeship program with LaGuardia Community College. (The college also has a significant English-as-a-Second Language program, critical for its largely immigrant student body to pass OSHA requirements.)
So, while this was an unusual CenterBuild, in many ways it was a literally and figuratively a breath of fresh air. If attendees’ plans bear fruit, we could have a building workforce that is more skilled, more respected, and looks a lot more like the people the industry serves.
About Debra Hazel
President of Debra Hazel Communications
A native New Yorker recently transplanted to North Las Vegas, Debra Hazel is a veteran retail real estate writer, editor and media consultant. She provides comprehensive communications services to retail real estate owners, developers and managers, design firms and businesses allied to the industry. You can reach her at debrahazelcommunications.com.