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Skilled Workers Wanted: Self-Storage Builders Face Down the Construction Labor Shortage


From the outside, building a self-storage facility might seem simple. After all, it’s predominately steel and concrete. You’d think it would be easy to find workers to erect them, right? Sadly, that isn’t the case in 2017.

With development on the fast track, the number of people qualified to construct storage sites is dropping, and the industry is starting to feel the pinch. From delayed materials to contractors who are simply overloaded, the labor shortage is crippling the U.S. construction industry, which only recently found its footing after The Great Recession.

It was those lean years that led to today’s lack of workforce. New construction across all industries dried up, costing 2.3 million jobs between 2006 and 2011, according to Tradesmen International, a recruiter and resource for the building industry. All facets suffered from this loss, from general contractors to metal-building manufacturers, plumbers to brick-layers. And while some have once again strapped on their toolbelts, the downturn made an impact that’s affecting anyone building today.

“We have clients who’ve had their project schedules severely impacted due to lack of mobilization ability, sometimes forcing projects to sit idle for weeks while waiting for subcontractors to become available,” says Angie Guerin, national sales manager for Mako Steel Inc., which designs, supplies and installs steel buildings for the self-storage industry. “It has also driven up the cost to build as we compete in the labor market for the limited skilled workers.”

Losing the Workforce

To understand what’s happening in the construction workforce, we must go back a decade. When the housing boom became a bust in the mid-2000s, many workers were forced to find new occupations. During its peak in 2006, the industry employed 7.7 million, according to an article on It lost roughly 1.2 million.

“As construction projects began to come back online over the last several years, those individuals who had left the trades were too established in their new careers to make the switch back to the construction industry,” says Joel Sikkila, a partner with Synergy Self Storage, which completed a project last year and has another in the works.

Now the construction industry is also failing to attract new talent. Over the past decade, high schools have shed their vocational education, which often spurs interest in trade work. There’s also been a cultural shift away from traditional blue-collar work, as technology-based jobs appeal to younger generations.

Despite the influx of new building projects across all sectors, job fulfillment has yet to rebound. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are nearly 200,000 unfilled construction jobs in the United States, an 81 percent jump in just two years. In fact, “labor shortage” was named one of the five trends to watch in commercial construction this year by ConstructConnect, which provides data for the industry professionals.

The simple volume of building is also adversely affecting many self-storage projects. “In our markets, there are many other construction projects underway—office, residential, retail, etc.—which creates a shortage of subcontractors in the areas of concrete, masonry, electrical, HVAC and others,” says Steve Tangney, vice president of real estate for West Coast Self-Storage, which has nine properties under construction or development in three states. “Second, the construction boom in self-storage has created a shortage in the storage-specific trades such as metal-building contractors and roll-up door suppliers.”

Furthermore, self-storage construction has become more specialized than it was even five years ago. Today’s properties are more complex, with bigger offices, conference rooms, vehicle storage and other special features. Many developers are incorporating advanced materials and designs into their projects, and multi-story building is becoming more popular as land is being gobbled up in urban markets. This type of construction comes with a unique set of requirements.

“For the actual storage buildings themselves, the volume of work being done across the country, along with the limited number of truly knowledgeable self-storage erection crews, has led to the labor shortage,” says Jim Chiswell, owner of Chiswell & Associates LLC, which provides feasibility studies, acquisition due diligence and customized manager training for the self-storage industry. “You shouldn’t assume that just because a contractor says he knows how to erect pre-engineered metal buildings that he knows self-storage.”

Dealing With Delays

The labor shortage has affected self-storage development on several levels, adding to the overall cost of just about every project. A scarcity of qualified employees means those who are skilled can charge more for their services. Plus, smaller crews often mean longer hours on the jobsite, which leads to overtime pay.

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