In many communities, the building industry is going gangbusters. City skylines are dotted with cranes, abandoned structures are finding new uses, and communities are thriving with new residents and amenities. Although such activity is good for those communities at large, the growth in building permit volume has exposed a two-pronged problem for building department directors and chief building officials: What is to be done about the looming retirements of inspectors, plans examiners, and code officials; and what is to be done about the lack of a pipeline to replace them?

What’s Causing the Shortage?

Several factors have led to the overall code personnel shortage. First, building departments and private sector industry participants compete for the same scarce resources. A design firm needs licensed architects or engineers to draft plans while at the same time, a building department needs licensed architects or engineers to review and approve plans.

As design firms scale up to meet the demands of the booming economy, they have the flexibility to offer wage premiums that typically exceed what public agencies can offer. As a result, building departments are hit hard twice. They struggle with an increased volume of activity, and they see candidates choose to pursue more lucrative private sector opportunities over public employment.

Another factor impacting the labor shortage is credentialing. Plans examiners need to be licensed architects or engineers, which typically requires a certain amount of schooling and experience. Similarly, inspectors must also have certifications that require a certain amount of training and field experience.

In both cases, the requisite experience typically needs to be attained outside the public sector. The standards required for licensure and certification limit the available applicant pool for open positions. That shrunken pool, coupled with private sector competition, can make filling expansion positions or back-filling existing positions extremely challenging.

Additionally, plans examiners and building inspectors, on average, are getting older. Each year a fresh wave of retirements ushers out employees with the most institutional knowledge and experience, and replacing those individuals is difficult. A pension is one of the most attractive benefits of public sector employment, and those nearing retirement are incentivized to leave the workforce. On the other hand, the specter of retirement for those entering the workforce is very distant, and the incentive of the pension is comparatively small. Therefore, more code officials’ careers end than begin.

What’s to be Done About the Shortage?

Amidst a labor shortage, the phrase “do more with less” isn’t just cliché management jargon – it is a necessity. Permit volume will not slow if there aren’t enough plans examiners to review them. Construction activity will not cease if there aren’t enough inspectors to approve it. Instead, chief building officials must find a way to get more productivity from their staff. They must determine how to do more with less.

One way to increase output without increasing headcount is through technology. A permitting and inspections platform can introduce and facilitate the necessary process improvements to meet the increasing demand for service while agencies recruit and train new staff.

The Accela Civic Platform is designed to be the tool that allows public institutions to do more with less. The system provides a public facing portal that gives external users the ability to enter applications straight into the system, which reduces manual staff application entry. Once created, permit applications can be logged, assigned, and tracked as they move through the workflow.

Accela’s powerful scripting engine can be configured to automate certain activities that meet applicable business rules, which reduces staff time and effort. Additionally, Accela collects an abundance of permit data, so project and applications reporting is as simple as pressing a button.

Additionally, the Civic Platform provides a best-in-class mobile experience for field staff. Inspectors don’t have to come back from the field early to enter their inspection results into the system. Those results can be updated onsite in real-time when the inspection is completed.

Result comments can be added using the voice to text capabilities of the inspector’s smartphone, and users can annotate and upload pictures directly into the Civic Platform from their mobile devices. These efficiencies translate to more time in the field and less time behind a desk.

Final Thoughts

The labor shortage code officials face is a serious issue that threatens the construction industry and the economy. It is a challenge that must be acknowledged and addressed. “Business as usual” will not suffice. Although technology itself cannot stem the tide, it is one tool that can and should be leveraged to wring inefficiencies out of the process. Ultimately, without investing in software platforms like Accela, building directors and chief building officials will find themselves in the unenviable position of doing less with less.

Mike B

About the Author

Michael Bowen, Director of Accela Practice at 3SG Plus, has over a decade of expertise gained from extensive use of Accela software while serving at the City of Columbus Department of Building and Zoning Services.

Michael adeptly applies his wealth of hands-on experience to serve our Accela customers, aligning our enhancements with the operational requirements of government agencies, drawing from his firsthand knowledge of the challenges and solutions encountered in adoption and onboarding processes.

If you would like to learn more about how the Accela Civic Platform can help your agency improve productivity, please click the link and fill out the form. One of our team members will be in touch.

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