What’s keeping the glass industry up at night?
Exhibitors, attendees and speakers at GlassBuild America all pointed to two major challenges:
- the ongoing labor shortage
- pandemic-related supply chain constraints
Neither concern has a quick fix. However, during GlassBuild, my colleague Norah Dick, associate editor, and I chatted with dozens of industry representatives at the show, who discussed what they are doing, what their customers are doing, to lessen the impact of the ongoing headwinds.
“What’s not going to get better [in 2022]: labor,” says Connor Lokar, senior forecaster for ITR Economics, speaking during the Glazing Executives Forum, held in conjunction with GlassBuild. “This is probably my worst news for you. The demand will be there for you next year. But labor is going to be a headache that sticks with you for the next decade.”
The overall construction industry lost 1.1 million jobs in the first two months of the pandemic, adding to an already difficult labor situation for firms, says Ken Simonson, chief economist of the Associated General Contractors of America, who delivered the morning keynote address during the GEF. “[Nonresidential construction] is way behind where it was in February 2020 with over 200,000 jobs less,” Simonson says.
Meanwhile, manufacturing employment lost 1.4 million jobs during March and April 2020 and recovered only 1 million of those lost jobs as of August 2021.
There is no silver bullet for attracting and retaining high-quality workers. However, glass industry companies can adjust management and hiring practices, and invest in new processes and equipment, to help, according to industry representatives at the show.
Exhibitors say automated solutions have become even more in demand during the year. “The pandemic may have put the industry over the edge in terms of automation. Getting more labor isn’t an option,” says Anthony Pigliacampo, CEO and chairman, Joseph Machinery Co.
“Automating processes is by far the priority for most manufactures to address the labor shortage issue that everyone is faced with,” adds Tom Bechill, sales manager, Hegla.
Many automated solutions not only reduce the number of workers required for production, they also simplify tasks for the operators who remain. “We’re simplifying the machine for the operator. Previously, it was a complicated process that required a lot of training. We’ve taken away 80 percent of what the operator has to do,” says Joe Gates, vice president of Lattuada North America.
Additionally, companies can look to business practices to address the labor shortage. Speakers during the Personnel Issues Roundtable panel at the GEF said a strong company culture with employee-focused management and incentives is necessary to keep workers. It starts with fair compensation but can also include incentives and rewards such as tuition reimbursement, unlimited paid time off and flexible scheduling. Additionally, panelists say that instilling a sense of ownership among employees goes a long way to building a strong culture.
The pandemic upended global supply chains, leading to delays and material cost inflation. “The world stopped overnight. Demand came back much more quickly than the supply side of the economy could,” according to ITR’s Lokar, speaking at the GEF. ITR anticipates the global economy is going to peak in first quarter of 2022, then see a deceleration. As the pace of growth tempers and returns to more normal levels, supply will be allowed to catch up to demand, Lokar says. “You’ll see gradual improvement as  wears on,” he says.
While relief may be in sight in the coming year, exhibitors and attendees report that the supply chain woes have been a top concern during the year.
“Getting raw material and manufactured components in quickly and consistently has been very challenging in 2021,” says Derek Burkholder, vice president of sales/engineering, Casso-Solar Technologies.
“Companies are seeing a lack of glass, partly due to the prices to ship and lack of shipping containers. There is a lack of supply for commercial due to the residential boom,” says Rick Dominguez, president, Jordon Glass Machinery.
For glaziers, Simonson emphasized the importance of communication about supply chain issues among construction project team players. “Let a contractor know if you’re not going to be able to supply on time or with the quantity needed. Put that information in your documents,” he says. The AGC developed a Construction Inflation Alert, with supporting documents and resources to help communicate the ongoing supply and pricing challenges to owners and officials.
Suppliers have also been active as they work to ease their customers’ supply chain constraints. “We try to help our customers by reaching out to get them to purchase spare parts well ahead of when they think they will need them,” says Casso-Solar’s Burkholder.
Officials from FHC say they have been paying to fly some products and parts instead of shipping due to supply chain issue. Lisec officials say they have worked to keep inventory in North America. Similarly, Tim Minne, managing director of Mecal USA, says the company focused on providing parts reliability for its customers. “If we don’t have a part for a customer, we order two for inventory. It’s about service that goes above and beyond,” he says.
DFI’s Sim says she has seen companies step up to help one another. “The need for glass as well as hardware has been extremely hard on parts of the industry; however, I have seen so many positive conversations with competitors helping each other, doing whatever they can to fill orders and satisfy the end customer,” she says.
The used equipment market is also booming amid supply, as customers seek to quickly increase production amid a time of supply chain disruptions, says Jay Campbell, glass solutions specialist, Billco. “Customers want [used equipment] that’s good enough for right now, in addition to ordering new machines that have longer lead times,” says Campbell. Billco refurbishes pre-owned equipment to meet demand for used machinery.