Supply chain disruptions and labor shortages have been making news for months, but how are these challenges affecting work at Western? Across campus, in Capital Planning and Development (CPD), Facilities Management (FM), and Procurement, seemingly random shortages and unpredictable supply chain disruptions are causing in-house remodel projects, in the words of CPD Space Administration Program Manager Ellen Kuhlmann, “to stack up like planes on a runway.”
Intensifying the external challenges, the return to campus in the fall brought a flurry of requests for projects using the minor works and classroom and lab capital funds awarded in the last funding cycle. With construction in the region very busy and labor and supply shortages also affecting outside contractors, fewer contractors are available and bidding on campus projects.
Teamwork with contractors is key for working through challenges to keep Public Works projects on schedule and on budget, according to Alexis Blue, CPD assistant director. Like others on campus, she noted the randomness of impacts, with problems in manufacturing, shipping, unavailable raw materials, and rapidly rising costs.
Jordan Marney of BN Builders, the general contractor on the Interdisciplinary Science Building, said they ran into multiple procurement problems that changed the flow of the project and the procurement process but fortunately did not cause significant delays to the project schedule.
At Lydig Construction, the general contractor for Alma Clark Glass Hall, Craig Greene says that every one of their projects throughout the region has been challenged by supply line issues, including anything coming from overseas, elevators, large mechanical gear, and anything with computer chips. Pricing for raw materials is very unstable, and suppliers have been filling late orders with materials procured for different projects to avoid delays.
FM Construction Manager Hub McCaulley characterized the changes as “really varied and some quite surprising.” Julie Larmore, Assistant Director of Facilities Financial and Business Services for FM, pointed out that FM currently has more than double its typical number of pending orders at 136 awaiting fulfillment. Materials ranging from cleaning supplies to doors and locksets to power supplies and batteries, which used to arrive in a day or two, have developed long wait times or become unavailable. Larger or more specialized orders are completely unpredictable, as with two cargo vans ordered last April that still have no scheduled delivery date.
FM has made some procedural changes to mitigate the effects of supply shortages. Once a project is funded, they order all materials immediately rather than waiting until closer to the start date. If all items arrive promptly, it can cause storage problems, but that is preferable to stopping work while waiting for materials. For the same reason, projects will not be scheduled until materials have arrived or teams are certain they are locally available.
Also looking to mitigate impacts, Andrea Rodger, associate director of Business Services, said that because paper has become harder to find and more expensive, Procurement bought an inventory of 100% recycled paper to have on hand for next day delivery of Marketplace orders.
The biggest delays Procurement is seeing, however, are for computers, laptops, and monitors. Specific parts are causing delays in laptops, some of which are taking several months to ship. Backups at ports and shortages of drivers will continue to slow deliveries well into the first half of 2022.
Labor shortages are also affecting services on campus. All four shops in FM are actively recruiting, but the biggest shortage is in the plumbing shop, where McCaulley said, “Recruitment has been horrible.”
Job listings now focus on the benefits of working at Western, both the obvious ones like insurance and retirement, but also on the less tangible benefits of being a part of this student-focused community. “It’s like a city here,” McCaulley remarked, with everyone working together to support student success, offering a strong sense of community and rewarding work.
As the university works through these difficulties, everyone emphasizes the need to plan ahead, to buy local, to be patient, and to remain flexible, remembering that we’re a strong and resilient community, available to support each other through challenging times. Our commitment to our students and to each other is truly our best mitigation strategy.