Call it what you like: reading the writing on the wall, telegraphing a pass, or the more business-like, industry forecasting. However one says it, the concrete industry has been anticipating the current, pervasive labor shortage for 25 years. The Associated General Contractors of America’s 2015 Workforce Survey indicates that 63% of construction firms polled are having trouble finding concrete workers at a time when projects are on the rise.

But here’s the good news: There is an immediate, actionable step concrete contractors can take to keep from losing sleep at night and losing dollars from the bottom line. Every component of concrete construction has seen advancements — forming and finishing techniques, chemical admixtures, and high-performance concrete — yet, large crews of skilled ironworkers are still deployed to hand-tie loose rebar onsite.

The silver lining

Rather than bemoaning the lack of skilled labor, many contractors are looking for ways to streamline their critical path, and prefabricated reinforcing steel has tremendous appeal — welded, steel reinforcement mats in lieu of hand-tying loose rebar.

Dr. Maher Tadros at the University of Nebraska, has been a proponent of welded steel alternatives since the early 1990s. “Avoiding most of the labor at the site needed for placing and tying individual bars not only relieves the severe labor shortage we are facing,” says Tadros, “but also offers a superior and elegant solution where a perfect grid of crossing wires is used.”

John Ortiz, P.E., also knows the benefits of welded bar mats well as he played an integral role in introducing the manufacturing technology to the U.S. 25 years ago. Today, as president of Ortiz Engineered Products, an engineering firm based in Conyngham. Pa., and co-owner of American Bar Mat, a construction company specializing in the installation of welded bar mats, Ortiz has a different take on the labor crisis: “We don’t feel the sting of the labor shortage; in fact, it has benefited us. Our engineers specialize in converting loose rebar designs into prefabricated bar mats that arrive on site, partially assembled, before your crew ever touches the steel.”

History and technology

The greatest labor crisis in modern history was, arguably, in Europe following WWII. The need for massive amounts of reconstruction spawned innovations in construction methods and materials. This was the birthplace of engineered reinforcement mats that are still the standard throughout Europe.

Fast-forward several decades. In the early 1990s construction professionals in the U.S. recognized a downward trend in skilled workers in the construction trades brought about by pushing high school graduates into college instead of the trades. That trend has resulted in a significant shortage of skilled labor.

In 1991, construction began on a manufacturing facility in Pennsylvania that was the first of what today is many facilities that produce high-yield, engineered welded wire reinforcement mats. As the usage spread across the U.S., it was referred to by many pseudonyms: structural reinforcement mats, structural mesh, and even welded wire fabric. As concrete contractors began to think of it as rebar welded into a mat, the name bar mat stuck.

Today, engineered bar mats are a low-carbon, high-strength steel for structural concrete applications. The mats are resistance-welded using computer-controlled automated welders that produce custom-designed flat sheets that can be bent, rolled, and even galvanized or epoxy coated. Production is specific to each project in accordance with an approved set of value-engineered bar mat installation drawings that replace repetitive and time-consuming rebar installation with more efficient bar mats. Mats are then delivered to the jobsite in sequenced order following the contractor’s pour schedule.

Joe Neuber, president of Neuber Concrete, embraced the technology two decades ago; “Just as the laser screed changed the way concrete is placed in slabs, prefabricated bar mats changed the way steel is installed in those slabs. Welded mats also create a safer work area as workers no longer have to walk on unstable, hand-tied rebar.”