Construction Industry Outlook for 2022, Brian Scarborough, HUB International

Construction will continue its boom in 2022, but those that can cope with heightened risks and insurance issues will separate themselves from the competition.

Supply chain disruption and labor shortages will continue to challenge the construction industry. Resiliency will be essential to cope with these shortages and the challenges that accompany them.

Underwriters are looking for evidence that construction firms can withstand the unique risks of the business, whether those risks are well known or as unpredictable as a pandemic.

In 2020 and 2021, a global pandemic was an unknown risk that the construction industry could never anticipate. But in 2022, that risk won’t stop the industry from moving confidently into the future.

The most urgent issue impeding progress? In a word, it’s “shortages,” specifically involving materials and labor. Not having the materials or the personnel to complete a project on time can kill revenues and the bottom line.

There’s substantial risk management and insurance challenges, as well as opportunities. Modular construction and emerging technologies can help productivity but introduce new risks as well. Subcontractor performance and default, cyber exposure and site security continue to bedevil the market.

The prize ahead, of course, is the red-hot North American construction market, which could get even hotter when taking into account the pending U.S. infrastructure bill. That makes resilience — in managing supply chain risk and labor shortages — perhaps the most important issue for the construction industry in 2022.

Here are the trends and issues the industry is expected to face in 2022:
1. Supply chain disruptions may become a way of life in 2022

In 2021, contractors couldn’t get enough supplies to finish jobs on time and on budget.

Material shortages brought about by COVID-19 that interrupted the supply chain continued through in 2021. The delta variant of the virus, along with natural disasters, set back supply chains for several materials. And unfortunately, these supply chain disruptions will continue in 2022.

The winter storm that pounded Texas and the Southwest shut down production of chemicals used in making roofing membranes, making them virtually unavailable today.

And the lumber shortage is only now rectifying itself — futures per thousand board feet were $632 in late September, down from a record $1,711 in May but still far up from about $250 in April 2020.

According to one survey, more than 90% of builders said there were shortages of appliances and lumber, while 90% had shortages of plywood and 87% said they had shortages of windows and doors.

Materials shortages interrupt cash flow, affecting costs, timing and budgets. Contractors are lucky if they can overpay for materials and stockpile. Supply-related project delays have contractors scrambling to extend expiring builders’ risk policies.

The key to mitigating supply chain issues comes down to resilience: engagement with suppliers, building materials reserves and developing backup suppliers. It’s also important to reconsider reliance on foreign-made supplies and just-in-time materials sourcing, making it important to establish local and regional suppliers when possible.

  1. Alternative materials will finally emerge — but not because of supply issues

After years of being the “next new thing” that never quite took hold, alternative materials in construction will take hold in 2022.

But the increased use of alternative materials will have less to do with alleviating supply issues as the improvement in the quality of materials themselves.

Consider cross-laminated timber, also known as “mass timber.” Though it won’t alleviate the lumber supply issues, its strength and improved fire resistance make it a viable alternative for certain applications, plus its domestic manufacture helps mitigate supply chain problems.

Other new materials include “bendable” concrete, which has greater durability than regular concrete, reducing the need for costly repairs down the line.

There are drawbacks: Alternative construction materials won’t completely mitigate supply chain risk nor are they flawless. The cost of alternative materials can also be an issue.

So when exploring these new materials as an alternative, contractors need to check the insurance implications, including property, general and product liability.

  1. Could high-tech improve recruiting?

It’s likely that the labor shortage in construction will worsen in 2022, which presents more than an issue of delayed projects, but survival. Even with a boom in construction projects, it doesn’t matter for contractors if they can’t get anybody to work on them.

The stark macroeconomic reality: The U.S. needs 1 million new construction workers in the next two years. The average U.S. construction worker is 43 years old, and younger people aren’t lining up to take their place.

With a median annual wage of $37,080, the pay may not appeal to younger workers, given the nature of the work. Paid apprenticeship training programs are one solution, and vocational skills training programs especially help retention. Members of the Associated Builders & Contractors invested $1.3 billion in 2020 alone to “up-skill” workers.

But trends in construction itself may offer the best solution. Modular construction provides the opportunity to practice a trade in a protected environment. And technology plays a role: not only does it improve productivity but drones, robotics and digital tools in construction appeal to young workers.

What’s more, younger workers will have skills in technology that older construction workers might lack, putting that younger demographic in demand, helping boost entry-level wages. And offering voluntary employee benefits can also give contractors an edge in attracting employees.

  1. Technology — and its risks — will come to the forefront

Technology will continue its unstoppable march into all aspects of construction, having a profound impact on the business.

Drone use is skyrocketing, and industrial-scale 3-D printing is moving beyond the proof-of-concept stage. And more contractors are using automated construction robots and self-driving vehicles. Smart project management tools will make scheduling and budgeting more efficient. Robots and wearable sensors improve efficiency and safety.

There’s a lot at stake: The tech evolution stands to improve the industry’s productivity as much as 60%, delivering as much as $1.6 trillion annually in incremental value.

The downside is additional risk, particularly cybercrime: technology makes contractors and their customers vulnerable to ransomware, social engineering and other cyberattacks. One study showed that 75% of construction-related firms had experienced a cyber incident in the previous 12 months.

Underwriters have more stringent guidelines than ever for cyber coverage, and cyber insurance premiums will increase 20% or more in 2022. This puts the industry in an uncomfortable reality: Cyber insurance is no longer optional. Attacks will only increase, and those lacking coverage could end up suffering devastating losses.

Succeeding in 2022

Opportunities for growth are expanding, but as the last two years have shown, the industry can’t take success for granted. The most important determinant to success? The ability to navigate the supply, labor and financial uncertainties in 2022.

It will take the type of resiliency, planning and risk management that may be foreign to experienced construction companies.

Brian Scarborough is Executive Vice President of the Gainesville region for global insurance brokerage HUB International Florida. In this role, he oversees the operations of the Gainesville location and is responsible for new business development. Brian specializes in Property & Casualty Insurance and Employee Benefits with a focus on Commercial Real Estate, Manufacturing, Construction and Healthcare.