Construction managers: Schools need to invest in trades

Brad Iverson-Long//October 28, 2014

Construction managers: Schools need to invest in trades

Brad Iverson-Long//October 28, 2014

More than four out of every five construction firms say they are having trouble finding craft workers. File photo.
More than four out of every five construction firms say they are having trouble finding craft workers. File photo.

Most construction firms in the West and in the U.S. have trouble finding workers, according to national and regional survey results from the Associated General Contractors of America.

After millions of jobs were shed in the recession, laid-off workers retired or sought work in other fields. They didn’t return to construction, and now a shortage of workers is one of the chief complaints of leaders in the trades.

The AGC and its members said more emphasis, and tax dollars, should be put into school programs to train construction workers.

The AGC survey found that 83 percent of companies have a hard time filling craft worker positions — on-site construction jobs including carpenters, equipment operators and laborers — and  61 percent are having a hard time filling professional positions, such as project supervisors, estimators and engineers.

The AGC said it didn’t receive enough survey responses from Idaho companies to provide specific data for Idaho. But Idaho construction managers have long said they can’t find the people they need.

“Sometimes we’ll have qualified people responding. Other times, we’ll have no response or from a multitude of people that aren’t well-trained or don’t have experience in our field,” said Mark Guho, president of Guho Corp. in Eagle.

Guho said that his company did improve its benefits package last year as part of a plan to attract workers. The problem started when the economic recovery began.

“When things were slow, we had 50 people at our doorstep, and now it’s spotty. Sometimes you’ll have a half a dozen or a dozen people, sometimes you’ll have one or two or none,” he said.

The worker shortage is causing an increase in labor prices, said Joe Jackson, vice president of operations at Engineered Structures Inc. in Meridian.

“Eventually that will trickle down to project costs,” he said. Jackson said that the recession put a halt to people entering construction.

“It was not an inviting one for people coming out of school or looking for a job. There just weren’t jobs,” he said.

Guho said he hopes more public schools prepare students for a trade career.

“Getting a degree isn’t necessarily for everybody and I think the construction industry offers a good career for the right person,” Guho said. He said the average age of the workers for many trades, particularly for masons, has climbed in recent years.

The AGC said construction companies in the West reported having trouble finding some specific craft professions, including plumbers, carpenters, roofers, painters, drywall installers, and bricklayers. Western companies were also less likely than companies nationwide to increase pay, bonuses or benefits for craft workers. They also were more likely to say that it will continue to be hard to find and hire qualified construction workers.

“Many firms are changing the way they operate to address these workforce shortages,” said Ken Simonson, chief economist with the AGC of America. That includes using subcontractors, staffing companies or labor-saving equipment or tools. The worker shortage is more severe in the south and Midwest than the West. Companies in the Northeast reported having less difficulty finding construction workers.

Other northwest construction firms say the recession led many experienced workers to retire. Steve Malany, president of P&C Construction in Portland, said his firm went from 70 employees down to 20, though it’s now back up to 50 employees. He said the company wanted to hire back some of the workers it laid off. But some of the most highly skilled craftsmen had retired.

“That brain drain, as it’s occurring throughout the nation with baby boomers, is certainly affecting the construction industry, too,” he said.

Oregon’s government in recent years has added millions in money for grant programs for construction and other career and technical education programs. Mike Salsgiver, executive director of the AGC Oregon-Columbia Chapter, said the grants are reversing multiple decades in spending cuts on vocational education, which he believes led to increased high school dropout rates.

“It’s our view that restoring vocational educational opportunities for students will help to reduce the number of dropouts and create new avenues to build the construction workforce of the future,” Salsgiver said.

Jackson said Idaho should consider construction training programs. He also said it’s time to work on improving the image of the construction industry, because there are jobs available.

“We’ve got to work towards trying to influence younger people to enter the trades,” Jackson said.