Building Code Professionals Face Labor Shortage

The labor shortage among those who inspect buildings is just as bad as the labor shortage in the trades to construct those buildings.

A couple of years ago, George Williams, 34, senior inspector/plans examiner at West Coast Code Consultants Inc. in West Jordan, Utah, was curious why he was always the youngest guy in the room whenever he attended a continuing education seminar or other code event. 

“Not slightly younger,” he says, “but dramatically younger.”

Determined to find out more, Williams asked the Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing for information on his professional colleagues.

While the agency couldn’t give him personal items, such as names and addresses, it did email him an Excel file with the ages of every building code professional in the Beehive State.

A quick crunch of the numbers and Williams discovered why he was always the “kid” — 60 percent of his colleagues in Utah were 55 or older. Another 9.5 percent were already past 65.

Williams figured that those types of numbers didn’t bode well for the future of his profession that has, historically, helped save lives and property and since taken on the modern duty of saving water and energy. 

So with the state data and additional research, Williams wrote a 170-page thesis, “Assessing the Repercussions of a Mass Departure of Building Inspectors from the Code Professional Industry in Utah,” as he worked toward a master’s degree in science at Brigham Young University’s School of Technology.

Williams’ research predicted a steady and dramatic decline in the number of licensed code professionals in his state.

“Without an adequate evaluation of the current state of the industry coupled with a careful strategic plan of action,” he wrote, “the industry risks abruptly losing years of experience and expertise, and placing building safety in the hands of a very inexperienced and unprepared group of replacements.”

Not just the trades

Considering all the bad news we’ve heard about a labor shortage for trades to construct buildings, we shouldn’t be too surprised that there’s also a labor shortage for code professionals to inspect those buildings.

Admittedly, the Utah situation is rather small. Williams' research, for example, was largely based on the future plans of a total of 600 professionals. Unfortunately, there’s nothing unique about the situation in Utah. A few months after Williams wrapped up his thesis, a national and international study conducted by the International Code Council (ICC) and the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) released a report based on much larger input, but with conclusions just as dour as Williams’ modest sample.

That comprehensive research, apparently the first of its type to investigate the code profession, found that 3 out of every 10 professionals planned to retire in the next 5 years, with 80 percent expecting to retire within the next 15 years. (And keep in mind, the study was completed 3 years ago.) What’s more, nearly 85 percent of the respondents were already over 45.

“It comes as little surprise that the current workforce is aging and making plans for retirement,” the report says. “However, the actual numbers are a bit alarming.”

ICC and NIBS gathered responses from all 50 states, plus Australia, Canada and India. 

“We picked up anecdotal comments about people getting ready to retire or looking ahead to retirement,” said Dominic Sims, CEO of ICC at the time, adding that the ICC was hearing about state and local governments having a more challenging time hiring building safe professionals.

“That’s when we decided to look into this a little bit deeper and try to learn a little bit more about what’s going on so we could help the industry begin to prepare for significant change.”

Out of 41,000 people who held ICC certifications, some 3,850 ultimately responded to a series of 25 questions related to demographics such as age, compensation level, education, professional background, time spent within the industry and, of course, anticipated retirement plans.

While all those pending retirements sounded bad enough, the research also showed how even one departure could be greatly magnified by two factors that made every code professional’s job that much more crucial.

First, most code professionals worked in relatively small departments. For example, a third worked with only one to four others. Half of the respondents indicated they worked in a department with nine or fewer people.

Another telling aspect of the research involved investigating the roles of each code professional within respective building departments. 
Within these departments, code professionals fulfill a variety of roles and responsibilities split in numerous areas.

Over half of the respondents, for example, had responsibility for plan review, with over 48 percent serving as building inspectors and 46 percent in department management (respondents could select as many roles as applied to them).

A further look at the numbers shows that 71 percent of the respondents who conduct plan reviews are also building inspectors; 66 percent are residential inspectors; 58 percent are mechanical inspectors; 56 percent are general inspectors; 51 percent are plumbing inspectors; and 50 percent are energy inspectors. 

Naturally, smaller building departments tend to have overlapping roles more often than larger ones. And this also indicates that the future generation of code professionals will need to be proficient in a wide variety of code disciplines.

“The retirement of multiple members in such a department over a short time frame would result in a significant loss of institutional memory and capacity,” the study says.

Regardless of who’s ending a career, the research also makes it clear that there aren’t many young people starting a career in the code profession — just 3 percent of the respondents were under 35; those between 18-24 were practically nonexistent at 0.1 percent.

What to do

Williams, on the other hand, was 22 when he was certified by the ICC and licensed by Utah.

After studying construction management at a community college, Williams got a job at an engineering firm that eventually wanted him to handle the firm’s own building inspections.

Since he wrote his thesis, Williams is doing all he can to attract new talent to the industry.

“If you like a job that doesn’t just put you behind a desk and provides a great variety of work to think through, then this is the job for you,” he says. “And there’s nothing better than seeing something go from a field of dirt to a completed building.”

Recently, Williams’ company worked with the Utah licensing department to create an educational program with state funding. Utah already allocates 1 percent of building permit fees to pay for continuing education for existing contractors and inspectors. Williams got $30,000 to set up a test-prep series with 41 two-hour sessions to prepare new recruits. So far, 36 people have gone through the program.

Williams has also helped his firm to start the online WC3 Code Academy, which will go live in May with the first few courses of what is planned to be a comprehensive digital school for code-related training.

The online aspect, Williams thinks, is perfect for someone in the trades looking for a change in profession.

“This is perfect for someone who works every day, since the academy will be always open and provide them the time they need to learn — whenever that time might be,” Williams adds.

The academy will offer test prep and training videos and practice exams to prepare someone to work in building, mechanical and/or plumbing inspection.

A tradesperson looking for a change of pace in a building-related profession is one sure avenue to attract more people to the code profession. The ICC/NIBS study showed that many current inspectors’ first jobs were, in fact, in the trades.

Diverse backgrounds

The trades, however likely a resource, aren’t the only place to look for tomorrow’s code professionals. If there’s one bright spot in this labor shortage, it’s the sheer diversity of how today’s pros entered the profession.

The ICC/NIBS study provided previously unknown data regarding the educational backgrounds of code professionals.

For example, 35 percent of respondents had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, 23 percent had an associate’s degree, 16 percent attended technical or vocational training school, and 25 percent had a high school diploma.

While many came from where you’d expect — building-related educational backgrounds — other seemingly disconnected fields, such as business management and finance, were significant sources, too.

Of those with a bachelor’s degree, for example, 27 percent had studied business, 15.5 percent architecture and 14.4 percent construction management, with public administration, government, education, fire science and planning making up the remainder. (Only engineering degrees were cited more often at 30 percent.)

The relatively high concentration of business graduates, in particular, was a surprise to the researchers since it hadn’t been thought of as a significant source of potential code professionals.

“This finding suggests that introducing codes (and the related topic of standards) into the curriculum of business schools may be a means for actively introducing building regulatory careers to a new group of students,” the report concludes. “Such an approach would have the added benefit of highlighting the roles of codes and standards and code departments in business decision making. It could also help facilitate attempts by code departments to shift from a perceived adversarial process to a more cooperative engagement with the design, construction and overall business communities.”

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