Manpower Shortages and the Economy Worry Members
Rising interest rates, workforce shortages, inflation, and supply chain delays continued to plague the construction and fire sprinkler industries throughout 2022 and show no signs of slowing in 2023. How does business in the coming year look for members of the American Fire Sprinkler Association (AFSA)? Responses from a survey conducted by Sprinkler Age in December 2022 indicate a hopeful outlook. Read on for a compilation of reports from professional industry forecasters and AFSA members who gauged business last year and give insight into 2023.
Annual reports detailed in Engineering-News Record (ENR) (November 23, 2022) include Dodge Construction, which predicts $1.085 billion in construction starts for 2022, up 17 percent from 2021, compared to an expected $1.083 billion in 2022, a slight 0.2-percent decrease. For residential construction starts, Dodge forecasts a 0.1-percent drop in 2022, with a slight increase of 0.4 percent in 2023. Single-family starts are down 10.6 percent for 2022, and are expected to fall another 0.1 percent this year. Multi-family construction increased 26.9 percent in 2022 but will only increase 1.4 percent for 2023. For non-residential starts, a 10.1-percent decrease is expected this year after a 40.2-percent jump last year.
FMI Corp. is forecasting construction put-in-place for 2023 to reach $1.729 billion—down from $1.752 billion in 2022—a 1.3-percent decrease. Total residential is expected to decline 6.7 percent in 2023, with an 11.8 percent decline in single-family and a 5.6 percent rise in multi-family construction. This comes after an expected 13.2 percent increase in total residential construction put-in-place in 2022, with single-family at 9.8 percent and multi-family at 25.2 percent. Total non-residential is expected only to climb 4.4 percent from last year.
The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) estimates total housing starts will show a 4.3 percent decrease for 2022, with single-family falling 11.8-percent and multi-family up 13 percent. For 2023, it forecasts a 16.3-percent drop in housing starts, with a 16-percent decrease in single-family and a 16.7-percent decrease in multi-family.
ConstructConnect forecasts that residential construction’s total dollar value will decline 2.7 percent for 2022 and drop 0.4 percent in 2023.
“The key issue facing the economy now is inflation,” Richard Branch, chief economist at Dodge Construction Network, told ENR. If the Federal Reserve raising interest rates is successful to reign in further inflation impacts, Dodge expects rates to steady in the first quarter. “This should allow the economy to stabilize and start to recover in the back half of 2023,” he said.
For non-residential construction starts, Dodge expects to see a 40.2-percent increase for 2022, in part thanks to a staggering 196-percent increase in manufacturing in 2022. For 2023, Dodge is forecasting a 10-percent drop in non-residential starts.
With more people returning to traveling in 2022, hotel construction starts rose 36.8 percent, but just a 2.5-percent increase is expected for 2023. Office construction also saw a nice climb in 2022, with a 22.4-percent increase, but Dodge attributes that mostly to data center demand versus traditional office buildings as remote work continues to be popular. For health care, starts were up 23 percent for 2022 and are expected to rise 14 percent in 2023.
Additional construction forecast reports can be obtained at enr.com and constructionexec.com. For insight from AFSA members, Sprinkler Age surveyed members throughout the country and compiled their comments by membership region.
All reports coming in from California report that 2022 was a good year for the fire sprinkler industry. Brian Duffy, vice president of Tri-County Fire Protection, Hesperia, California, reports that 2022 was, “Amazing! This was our largest revenue year in our 33 years of operating.”
Toby MacDonald, sales manager, Western Fire Protection, Inc., Poway, California, reports that 2022 was “excellent.” Ed Looney, vice president, Fire Pro Specialists, Inc., Pleasanton, California, says work was “steady” in 2022, and they are “on pace to have about same sales and income as 2021.”
“We had a good year with continued growth,” states Robert Corriea, C&C Fire Protection, Inc., Concord, California.
Lisa Montague, inspection manager, MS Fire Protection, Fresno, California, says 2022 was “profitable.”
Indications for 2023 are that business will slow for some in the state. “So far, Quarter 1 looks below average in sales,” comments Duffy. “Beyond that, it is hard to predict.”
Other contractors still have work on the books going into the New Year. “Our backlog is through 2023 and the first quarter of 2024,” reports MacDonald. Montague says they are looking for “increased profit.”
Looney and Corriea think the work will be the same, with Corriea stating he looks “to have a similar year as 2022” but “does not anticipate much growth.”
California contractors report several areas of concern going into 2023, with personnel topping the list. “We cannot seem to find any help,” comments Looney. “We’ve also had people out due to COVID and other medical issues. Trying to replace any staff, even in the short-term, has been impossible.”
Duffy notes training and maintaining a qualified workforce are challenging and that AFSA’s focus for 2023 should be “training, training, training.” Corriea is concerned about the economy, and reports that they have already begun to see a downturn in the overall availability of new projects.
Both MacDonald and Montague note that maintaining a workforce is a continuing challenge.
When asked about retrofit work, Duffy reports that they do some jobs, but they are “rarely seen at our level of work in our market.” MacDonald says he saw increased retrofit work. “There is a considerable amount of building repurposing,” he notes.
Duffy notes they perform NFPA 13D installations and that work remained the same.
Nearly all of the respondents from California indicated they perform inspection, testing, and maintenance (ITM) work and that it’s been a busy sector, with all signs pointing to more growth in 2023. MacDonald says it’s a “rapidly growing part of the industry.”
Residential sprinkler activity was busy in 2022 and looks to be the same in 2023. Duffy notes that they “increased our NFPA 13R installations and look to continue that growth into 2023.” MacDonald and Montague indicate they saw an increase, and MacDonald notes that “multi-family and high-rise multi-family increased and look to be strong in 2023.”
While Corriea notes they don’t perform residential work, he did indicate that they “receive calls daily looking for the repair of residential fire sprinklers.”
Regarding legislation, Duffy states, “Our area pretty much has a 100-percent sprinkler coverage on all new buildings greater than 5,000 ft2 and all residential.”
Looney and Montague didn’t see any new local legislation in their area for 2022.
Duffy notes, “Demand was extremely high in our market, and in talking to other companies in our area, it was definitely a challenge to keep up with supply. I see 2023’s demand falling back to normal levels and hoping to see material supplies/prices returning to pre-pandemic levels.”
MacDonald summarizes his outlook, saying, “Last year was an amazing year for us primarily in life science [facilities] and multi-family and will be consistent through 2023 and 2024. Housing shortfalls in California continue to drive demand and keep investment strong. We see life sciences slowing a bit due to high interest rates and inflation. Product shortfalls continue to hamper productivity, but the construction community continues to adapt, as usual. Military markets continue to stay consistent and show signs of growth as well. Looking to get back into this market looks to be a good idea for sustainability for when the market does begin to slow for a reset, most likely the third quarter of 2024 through 2025, then who knows after that.”
Good reports for business in 2022 are coming out of Region 2. Jon Beazer, a superintendent with Shilo Automatic Sprinkler, Inc., Nampa, Idaho, notes 2022 was “very busy.”
Jim Kazal, president of Kazal Fire Protection, Tucson, Arizona, notes that 2022 “started off a little slow but is insane now. We can’t find enough (any) help in all departments.”
The New Year looks to be busy, according to Beazer. Kazal notes that their “backlog is off the charts. We’re turning work away that starts prior to the second quarter.”
The workforce, or lack thereof, continues to be an issue, as Region 2 contractors note. Kazal states that “just finding help is an overall issue. Design, especially, is a huge problem.”
Most contractors indicated they perform retrofit work and expect it to remain at about the same levels for 2023. Kazal indicated retrofit projects have “increased for them this year, mostly system replacements.”
Regarding NFPA 13D installation, most respondents did not perform this type of work, but those who did saw the same levels in 2022 as in 2021 and expect the same for 2023.
While some do perform ITM work, levels stayed about the same. While Kazal Fire Protection doesn’t perform NFPA 13D work, Kazal notes that “housing starts were off the charts at the beginning of 2022.” He also says his outlook for 2023 is strong. “There are still some supply issues, and finding labor, qualified or not, will be a major issue until things slow down.”
Most respondents from Region 3 had a good year in 2022, with Jessica Lee, designer, Corcoran Enterprises, Burton, Michigan, noting they had a “great comeback from the 2020 era.” Brook Miller, branch manager, Brenneco Fire Protection, Inc., Flora, Indiana, also says the “sprinkler install business has been steady for us this year.” Dane Long, AET, engineering technician, Bamford Fire Sprinkler Co., Salina, Kansas, says 2022 was “pretty good.”
For 2023, Lee is “anticipating a better year than 2022,” and Miller notes that they’ve “got a couple of projects that carry over into the New Year and even 2024. We think it is looking good for 2023 as a whole. We’re hoping for an increase in installations, inspections, and service and to continue growing our company.”
Long indicates 2023 is looking “pretty typical” for work, perhaps with a little slowing from 2022.
Potential problem areas for Region 3 contractors include finding and maintaining a workforce and project slowdowns. Miller notes that they’re “struggling” to find employees.
Lee notes they are “pretty comfortable with our workforce, and there aren’t many COVID restrictions here. There has been an issue with waiting on certain sprinklers. I’m hoping this doesn’t continue into 2023.”
Any retrofit work in the region remained the same or slightly lower than in 2022, according to respondents.
Responses were on both ends of the spectrum for NFPA 13D work in Region 3. A few contractors don’t perform that type of work at all or very often. Miller notes that there may have been a decrease from 2021 to 2022. Long saw an increase in these types of projects.
Most contractors in this region perform ITM work and they indicated that they expect those projects to remain about the same or have some growth in 2023. A few contractors note they are just starting to expand to this area of work and are investing in training their workforce.
Residential projects kept some Region 3 contractors busy in 2022. Lee saw “some projects from 2020 break ground this past year,” and Miller did “some smaller residential sprinkler systems in 2022 compared to 2021.”
Regarding legislation, Long indicated that legislation they’ve had since 2010 preventing sprinklers in new NFPA 13D projects has created a “struggle to get those jobs.”
Region 4 contractors were overall “busy” in 2022, as Leeroy Delgado, Impact Fire Services, Pflugerville, Texas, notes. Tom Rigsby, field superintendent, VSC Fire & Security, Jonesboro, Arkansas, indicated it was a “good” year.
The New Year looks to be bright as well for most in Region 4. Rigsby expects 2023 to be “better,” and Delgado notes it will be “busy.”
When asked about retrofit work, Delgado says it has been “all steady and busy.” Some saw an increase in NFPA 13D installation work in Region 4. Most of the Region 4 contractors do perform ITM work and were busy in 2022. Growth is expected in this area for the region overall.
Most of the Region 5 contractors had a good year in 2022, with less-busy members still having a “good” to “same” year compared to 2021. Ralph Bless, Jr., P.E., CFPS, SET, vice president of account management, Telgian Corp., Atlanta, Georgia, notes 2022 was a “good” year.
Justin Smith, president, Ironsmith Fire, LLC, Collierville, Tennessee, notes, “We sustained growth in 2022, despite inflation and supply chain issues that we all have dealt with. We consider 2022 to be a success and a year we can learn from.”
Matt Joyner, vice president, Associated Fire Protection, Inc., Raleigh, North Carolina, says 2022 was a “challenging but successful year” with some issues, including material availability. “Fire pumps have become a long lead-time item,” he notes.
Craig Zimmerle, estimator/project manager with Sprinklermatic Fire Protection Systems, Davie, Florida, says, “It was a good yet challenging year.”
Ray Cole, president, Titan Fire Protection, Inc., Largo, Florida, says 2022 was “about the same” as 2021.
For 2023, several people expect a busy year. Smith is “optimistic” for 2023 and says, “bid activity is still strong.” Zimmerle says, “Who really knows?” but it “seems like another strong year to come.”
Others note they expect a “stable” or “slower” year. Joyner says that “the projects are there, but manpower is a concern if we want to continue at the pace we have previously been at. Entry-level positions, such as pipefitters, have become difficult to fill, and, as a result, has made us think outside the box in what we can offer as a small company.”
Cole expects “modest growth” in 2023, and Bless comments that 2023 looks to be “stable,” but there is an “undercurrent of skepticism and doubt.” He explains, “People seem to expect 2023 to be bad, and we may talk ourselves into these challenges.”
Hiring and supply chain issues are among the challenges faced by Region 5 contractors in the coming year. Bless says work-from-home expectations of staff continue to be in conflict with management expectations of an in-office workforce. “While we don’t expect COVID-19 to be the driving issue in 2023, we do see the lingering effects of the change to the workforce and the expectations.” He also notes that it’s a challenge to find people and materials.
Retrofit work kept some Region 5 contractors busy in 2022. Bless saw increases in his area, and Joyner had a “steady flow” of retrofit jobs available. Cole and Smith both had about the same amount of work, with Johnson noting that 2020 was a stronger year.
Little to no NFPA 13D installations were done by responding contractors, but those who did perform these types of projects saw a steady pace in 2022 with no remarkable increase or decrease.
ITM is a good business for Region 5 contractors, and most expect an increase in 2023. Zimmerle continues to “have a strong book for service and inspections.” Smith notes that they are “actively working” to grow their ITM department. For ITM, Joyner notes that “being approachable, honest, and ethical continues to drive our ITM department, resulting in long-term relationships.” Region 5 saw some “substantial” multi-family residential work, as Cole indicates. Zimmerle notes a “big increase in high-end rentals” as well.
While some contractors in Region 6 had a busy year in 2022, most respondents indicate it was an “okay” or “average” year, such as Robert Bitzer, layout technician, VSC Fire & Security, Inc., Springfield, Virginia; Marie Steele, president, Steele Services, Inc., Manahawkin, New Jersey; and Joel Warner, president, Sentry Fire Protection, Inc., York, Pennsylvania. Adam Levine, P.E., president, Capitol Fire Sprinkler, Woodside, New York, says, “In 2022, although our service side (ITM and repairs) was strong, the installation side faced many challenges.”
He continues, “In New York City, the volume of construction projects was still dramatically lower than 2019 (pre-COVID) levels. Many city residents moved to the suburbs, and many companies allowed employees to work from home, which decreased the need for residential buildings and office fit-out work. Raising interest rates and a decline in economic activity only exacerbated these effects.”
Paul Kimble, vice president of operations, A.S. Barlin Associates, Inc., Lincoln Park, New Jersey, reports that “this year’s business fell approximately five percent overall. In return, this has caused more backlog work that will project into the upcoming year.”
Jacob Mackle, sales/estimating, Wolf Fire Protection, Inc., Idlewylde, Maryland, says 2022 was “better than expected.”
Christopher Ribando, vice president, Approved Fire Prevention, Babylon, New York, says they are “on track with pre- COVID times.” Paul King, inspector, Summit Fire & Security, Richmond, Virginia, says that “although this year had its hurdles, as most years do, it was a refreshingly productive year for all participants striving for improving life safety.”
For 2023, many Region 6 contractors are “optimistic” and “positive” that a good year is ahead, including Mackle. Warner has a “number of projects” starting early in 2023, saying “it looks promising.” Steele and Bitzer think 2023 will be about the same as 2022. King notes that 2023 looks to be “the first year in recent memory in which we will be able to grow exponentially and build on year-over-year progress.”
Kimble has seen approximately a two-percent increase in the work scheduled for 2023 and an increased backlog.
“In 2023, I believe our service side will continue to be strong,” comments Levine. “For our installation side, I’m cautiously (maybe naively) optimistic that construction will pick up. Many general contractors I have spoken with are bullish for 2023, although so far, I haven’t seen an increase in our quantity of either bids or awards that would warrant that hopefulness.”
COVID continues to be a concern for the Northeastern states. Others mentioned manpower issues, including Levine and Warner. Kimble also sees ongoing problems with hiring new employees to perform the work. In addition, he notes they are “experiencing supply chain issues concerning materials.”
King also comments about personnel challenges. “Maintaining a committed and experienced workforce is an immense challenge,” he says. “As certification and licensing requirements have been adopted, the landscape has become one in which well-trained and educated employees have risen to the top. Many companies must continue to better understand how to value this essential workforce.”
Ribando adds that the “workforce remains a challenge.” Mackle also notes he’s seen “projects placed on hold due to financing.”
Most Region 6 respondents perform retrofit work, and most saw the same amount of projects in 2022 as they did in 2021. A few contractors increased business in this area. Kimble notes that their retrofit work had declined this past year “due to companies restructuring their business models and other companies not growing as they did before COVID.”
Some of the contractors who responded perform NFPA 13D installation work and have seen it remain the same yearly. Kimble did note that sales in the market appear to “be in decline due to material and labor costs and hikes in interest rates.”
For NFPA 25 work, most of the contractors are active in that area and see it growing in 2023, albeit perhaps a bit slowly. Ribando attributes some growth to “increased regulation and enforcement,” however, “the volume of inspection/testing is decreasing with reduced frequencies in the 2014 and later editions of NFPA 25. Five-year inspection/testing is growing as enforcement grows.”
Kimble anticipates a “10- to 15-percent increase” in their inspection/testing and maintenance work due to their “installation turnover of new projects.” King notes that ITM continues to grow, especially in the healthcare and industrial markets in his area. Warner also sees “more and more emphasis on ITM by fire chiefs and insurance companies.”
Sarah Smith, office assistant, Meridian Fire Protection, Inc., Salem, New Hampshire, reports 2022 was “busy,” and Chris Elliott, owner, Elliott Fire Sprinkler Systems, LLC, Westfield, Massachusetts, says business was “great.” Albert Gentes, president, Alpine Sprinkler, Inc., South Burlington, Vermont, had a similarly “good” year. However, Paul Krause, Jr., president, Warehouse Mechanical Contractor, Inc., Chicopee, Massachusetts, responded business was “poor profit-wise because of the large increase in material.”
For 2023, Smith expects a “busy” year and Krause a “very good” one. Elliott looks for a “steady but not amazing” 2023, and Gentes says the year will be “okay with the help we have. We could use more if we could find help.” Potential problems for 2023 echo what is seen around the country: maintaining a workforce and lack of available manpower are the biggest concerns.
Retrofit work in the area remained the same for contractors responding. NFPA 13D installation work ran the gamut from “increased” (Smith), “decreased” (Elliott), “stayed about the same” (Gentes). For NFPA 25 projects, Elliott reported work being “steady,” while others reported they don’t focus on those types of projects.
Residential work appears to be popular in the region, with Smith seeing an “absolute increase” in 2022. Krause saw multi-family work increasing, and Elliott saw a “moderate” amount of residential work in 2022.
Where is the industry headed in 2023? Contractors in some regions are hopeful things are headed back to where they were pre-COVID. There are concerns, though, according to Warner in Region 6, saying, “It looks promising entering 2023, but the economy certainly has me concerned.”
Kimble, who is also in Region 6, also has the economy on his mind. “Companies with which we have done business in the past seem to be more hesitant to start new projects due to uncertain economic times. Along with the delays in the supply chain delivering materials, this has slowed down projects which have driven the projected costs up and, in return, have cost more to the end user. This has slowed the bidding process down for future projects. Hopefully, 2023 will see these issues diminishing and result in a better 2024.”
In Region 5, [Justin] Smith notes that while “2022 was a challenging year,” the challenges are “all part of running a business, and one must be proactive rather than reactive to be successful.” He concludes, “We will take what we learned in 2022 and improve on that in 2023. We are optimistic that 2023 will be strong.”
Corriea in Region 1 is also optimistic. “After two years of dealing with the pandemic, it seems like business is starting to return to how it was in late 2019. We always have a positive outlook for the next year.”
AFSA is here to help members excel in 2023 with training, education, and networking. Utilize your membership to train your workforce in all aspects of the industry with webinars, correspondence courses, blended learning programs, and in-person classes. Connect with your peers at chapter events, seminars, and AFSA42: Convention, Exhibition, and Apprentice Competition. Visit firesprinkler.org, email email@example.com, or call (214) 349-5965 today. Your association has what you need to succeed in 2023 and beyond!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: D’Arcy Montalvo is public relations manager and editor, Sprinkler Age magazine, for AFSA.