Report: Idaho construction wages are rising in response to worker shortage

Construction workers at Idaho National Laboratory. A report from the Associated General Contractors of America says 81 percent of Idaho companies who responded to a survey reported they will hire additional craft workers in the coming year. Photo courtesy of Idaho National Laboratory.

A national survey of construction companies reveals that Idaho employers are raising wages to attract more workers.

The Associated General Contractors of America in a June-July-August survey of more than 2,500 construction companies determined 60 percent of construction companies said hiring laborers was more difficult this year than the prior year. In Idaho, the number was 41 percent.

Idaho’s 29 respondents also said 81 percent of companies expect to hire additional craft personnel in the coming year with the nationwide number 76 percent. But Idaho trailed the country with expected hirings in the coming year of hourly office, salaried field and salaried office personnel.

The survey showed only 36 percent of Idaho construction companies lost employees to other construction firms, while 51 percent of national construction companies lost workers to competitors.

Idaho had a higher proportion of companies increasing hourly craft wages (67 percent to U.S. average 62 percent), providing incentives and bonuses (33 to 25 percent) and increased benefits (33 to 24 percent).

“Idaho construction companies are increasing salaries and benefits,” said Wayne Hammon, executive director of Idaho AGC, and affiliate of AGC of America. “This makes a career in construction an even more attractive alternative to working in a low-wage job in another field. As we know, Idaho has too many people trapped in these jobs. Now is the time to consider upgrading from a dead-end job to a construction career.

AGC Chief Economist Ken Simonson spoke in similar terms in an Aug. 29 media teleconference as the trade organization attempts to convince younger generations that “you get to use cool tools” in the construction sector. Construction executives in Oregon and Washington noted the recent concerted effort to market the industry on social media with Twitter and Facebook accounts.

“At career days, we can talk to students for 10 or 15 minutes at most,” said Steve Malaney, president of P&C Construction in Portland. “We need to educate the educators. We have educator externships. Teachers get a stipend to spend two weeks within the industry.”

Idaho lags behind in creating qualified workers. Nationally, 48 percent of construction companies say they are engaged with career-building programs in high school and colleges while only 19 percent of Idaho survey respondents said so. Nationally, 27 percent said they are engaged with government workforce development or unemployment agencies while only 19 percent in Idaho are.

“We still have work to do,” Hammon said. “Finding people with the skills necessary to build Idaho’s future remains a challenge. The Idaho AGC, our member companies, and the state continue to work to address these needs.”

Idaho ranked No. 16 in construction job gains in July with a 5.3 percent increase or 2,400 new jobs since the prior July, according to AGC.

Couer d’Alene was the top player among Idaho metropolitan areas with a 9 percent increase in construction jobs, ranking No. 46 out of 334 metropolitan areas. Boise and Idaho Falls each ranked No. 89 with 7 percent increases with Lewiston at No. 117 with a 6 percent gain and Pocatello ranked No. 282 with no gain or loss.

“A vast majority of Idaho construction companies reported that they are expanding their workforces,” Hammon said. “Idaho continues to enjoy growth and most indicators show that this will continue for the foreseeable future.”

Construction job growth in Idaho remains strong if not scintillating

Construction work at a Boise site. File photo.

Construction job growth over last year ranged from 4 to 8 percent in June across most of Idaho, bringing the statewide total of construction workers to 47,500, according to the Associated General Contractors of America.

Idaho as a whole ranked No. 13 with a 6.0 gain in construction jobs June over June, a typical spot the Gem State has found itself in over the past year or two after ranking No. 1 and 2 several times in 2014 and 2015. The states ahead of Idaho are a mix of western states, small northeastern states and Georgia and Michigan.

Boise ranked No. 170 out of 357 metro areas with a 4 percent gain in construction jobs in June to 23,600. Boise, not just Idaho, found itself at No. 1 or No. 2 in job growth gains among cities in 2016.

The job gain numbers in Idaho are still strong even if they don’t put the state at the top, said Wayne Hammon, executive of the Idaho Associated General Contractors.

“We are holding our own,” Hammon said. “There’s a lot of work going on. Contractors are busy. They are actively hiring. I think we’re going to be busy for a long time.”

The U.S. Census Bureau recently said Idaho is the No. 1 fastest-growing state in population.

Coeur d’Alene ranked No. 62 with an 8 percent job gain. Idaho Falls and Lewiston each are No. 83 with 7 percent gains, but Pocatello ranked No. 273 with no gain or loss.

Where Idaho and its cities rank in construction job gains

June figures


Nationally, out of 50 states and Washington, D.C.

No. 13 Idaho, 6 percent gain


Among 357 metropolitan areas

No. 62 Coeur d’Alene, 8 percent gain

No. 83 Idaho Falls and Lewiston, both 7 percent gains

No. 170 Boise, 4 percent gain

No. 273 Pocatello, no gain or loss



No. 1 Idaho, several times in 2014 and 2015. The construction job count across Idaho since October 2014 has increased from 34,400 to 47,500

No. 1 Boise in August and September 2016 with a 24 percent job gain over the prior 12 months

No. 1 Lewiston in August 2017 and No. 2 several other months

Idaho metros rank high in construction job growth

A home under construction in east Boise.
A home under construction in east Boise. Idaho ranked No. 4 nationally for its growth in construction jobs. The state saw 9.3 percent growth from February 2017 to February 2018, the Associated General Contractors said. File photo.

Four of Idaho’s five metropolitan areas saw some of the fastest growth in construction workers nationally in February.

Combined, Idaho ranked No. 4 among states with a 9.3 percent growth in construction workers in February over the prior February, according to the Associated General Contractors of America. Idaho’s construction worker population reached 48,000 for the first time since January 2008, according to AGC statistics.

The top-growing states, percentage-wise, were West Virginia at 14.3 percent, Nevada at 10.9 percent and California at 9.5 percent. Following Idaho were Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Oregon.

Coeur d’Alene was the highest-ranking Idaho city among the 358 metro areas analyzed. The northern Idaho city ranked No. 16 with 16 percent or a 700-job increase in construction jobs. Workers were busy with a 96-room Staybridge Suites Hotel, a 360-space downtown public parking garage and several apartment projects.

Boise ranked No. 32 at 12 percent or 2,300 additional construction jobs; Lewiston ranked No. 82 at 8 percent or 100 more jobs; and Idaho Falls ranked No.125 at 8 percent or 200 more jobs, according to AGC .

Pocatello was the only Idaho metro in the lower tier at No. 343 at minus 5 percent or a loss of 100 construction workers.

Out-of-state workforce helps Idaho rebound with construction jobs

Workers at a construction site.
Workers at a construction site. Chuck Graves, president of construction and concrete at McAlvain Construction in Boise, said Idaho construction companies are finding many of their workers out of state. File photo.

Idaho’s No. 1 ranking in population growth directly propelled the Gem State back into the Top 10 states in construction job growth in November after spending much of 2017 lower in the rankings.

Idaho placed No. 9 with a 6.7 percent increase in November to 44,500 construction jobs, the highest number since July 2008, and also added 700 jobs or 1.6 percent from October to November to rank No. 13 among the states, according to an analysis by the Associated General Contractors of America of Labor Department data.

Idaho’s ranking still puts it short of the No. 1 it enjoyed through much of 2016. The state and nation have faced a worker shortage all year, said Stephen Sandherr, AGC’s CEO.

The worker shortage is “amplified” in Idaho, said Chuck Graves, president

Chuck Graves
Chuck Graves

of construction and concrete at McAlvain Construction in Boise.

“A lot of our new hires are coming from out of state,” Graves said. “I think there are more California license plates than Idaho plates (at McAlvain).”

Graves noted that Idaho’s No. 9 ranking may be misleading.

“With our size, it doesn’t take much to skew our numbers,” he said. “A couple things skew the statistics. There are a couple very large projects in the Treasure Valley. The other thing is food service in the Magic Valley has some large projects coming online.”

McAlvain, among Boise’s largest general contractors, is cautiously evaluating new projects.

“We’re taking a very close look at the work we take on,” said Graves, also president of Idaho AGC. “We’re a lot more particular of the work we’re taking on.”

Idaho is growing quickly; a recent study put it among the top five among the states for incoming migration. AGC Chief Economist Ken Simonson acknowledged Idaho’s recently announced No. 1 population growth rate and that “some of them are qualified for construction.”

Graves, Sandherr and Simonson took part in a Jan. 3 AGC media briefing regarding the construction sector forecast, based on survey results from more than 1,000 construction firms across the country.

The survey found that 73 percent of construction companies planned to add workers in 2018 even though 82 percent of the participating construction firms believe hiring qualified workers will be as hard or even harder than it was last year.

“Despite these challenges, 2018 should prove to be a good year for the construction industry,” Sandherr said.

Simonson noted 53 percent of survey participants predict growth in construction work while only 9 percent expect a decrease. He said the 44 point spread is the largest since AGC has done the industry survey.


Idaho metros can’t keep up with other cities in construction job growth

Workers on the site of the proposed Idaho College of Osteopathic Medicine in Meridian in September.
Workers on the site of the proposed Idaho College of Osteopathic Medicine in Meridian in September. Construction job growth in Idaho has lagged in recent months, partly because of staffing shortages. File photo.

The 2017 malaise of construction job growth in Idaho’s largest cities lingered into October.

Selected metropolitan areas in Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado and Wyoming all saw higher job growth rates than Coeur d’Alene, Idaho’s highest ranked metro. Coeur d’Alene came in at No. 53 out of 358 U.S. metro areas with 8 percent construction job growth, according to the Associated General Contractors of America.

Boise and Idaho Falls lagged far behind, both at No. 140 with 3 percent job growth over the prior October. Lewiston was flat at No. 244 and Pocatello dropped 5 percent of its construction jobs to rank No. 344.  The rankings were similar in September.

Among the nation’s double digit percentage gainers with construction jobs were neighboring counties covering Cheyenne, Wyo., and Greeley, Colo., several California central valley and desert metros, Wenatchee, Wash., Bend, Ore., and Las Vegas, Portland and Memphis.

Construction job growth in October was highest in inland metros of the West Coast states. Graphic courtesy of Associated General Contractors of America.
Construction job growth in October was highest in inland metros of the West Coast states. Graphic courtesy of Associated General Contractors of America.

Boise was No. 1 and 2 several times in 2016 and Lewiston was No. 1 and 2 in recent months.

“About six months ago it stopped,” said Wayne Hammon, executive director of Idaho AGC, an affiliate of AGC of America. “Six months ago, the number of jobs left unfilled eclipsed the number of jobs filled. Now it’s 2-to-1 with jobs unfilled.”

Hammon said that Boise’s low ranking of No. 140 is caused by a shortage of qualified workers. If those workers were available, there are jobs for them, Hammon said, and Idaho and Boise would be ranked near the top.

Nationwide, construction companies struggle with the lack of qualified workers, AGC has noted. But many secondary metros have surpassed the Idaho metros in construction job growth.

Wayne Hammon
Wayne Hammon

“Some of the places have a more robust community college system (training construction workers),” Hammon said. “We’re working on that. We’ve hit the limit of readily available workers. We have to bring new people into the system.”

Idaho AGC is collaborating with the Idaho Workforce Development Council on proposed legislation that would allow workforce development funds to pay for recurring one-month introduction to construction courses. At the end of the course, the graduate meets with a hiring contractor to land a two-year paid apprenticeship at a construction company, Hammon said.

He wants to offer these courses at Idaho’s four community colleges and Lewis-Clark State College and Idaho State University by next fall.

These introductory course could serve as a gateway to construction jobs for up to 150 people at the outset, Hammon estimates.

AGC will seek more training for construction workers

Construction workers on a scaffold.
Construction workers on a scaffold. Idaho, Boise and Lewiston have all led the nation in construction job growth at different times in the last year. File photo

Idaho as a state and Boise and Lewiston as metro areas have led the nation in construction job growth at various points in the past year, and the state overall added 7,000 construction jobs in the past three years to provide the manpower for surging growth.

Yet Idaho still falls about 8,000 workers short of its all-time high of 52,800 construction workers in February 2007, just as the national economic collapse surfaced. Construction jobs in Idaho ultimately deflated to 29,600 in March 2011.

Wayne Hammon maintains that Idaho right now could have more construction workers than the February 2007 peak – if only qualified construction workers were available to hire.

Hammon, executive director of the Idaho Associated General Contractors, said finding qualified workers is the industry’s Achilles’ heel, locally and nationally. He will lobby the Idaho Legislature in the coming session to enable the Idaho Department of Labor to offer broader job training programs for potential construction workers.

Associated General Contractors of America, the parent organization of Idaho AGC, notes the number of construction jobs in America and Idaho is the highest since 2008. But the traditional pipeline for workers through high school shop classes and vocational schools has largely disappeared.

“The greatest challenge is finding qualified workers,” AGC CEO Stephen Sandherr said. “The five toughest crafts to fill are carpenter, concrete, bricklayer, electrician and plumber.”

“We have a lot of people working on this,” Hammon said about addressing this in Idaho. “There are lots of sections of the pipeline that are not connected as a pipeline. We have Idaho State University offering electrician certification. None of the hours (students) spend at ISU count toward an apprenticeship. These programs ought to be better coordinated. The pieces are all there. We just have to get them put together.”

Idaho is by no means alone. The national AGC on Aug. 29 had a national conference call with several industry leaders saying that the process of filling construction jobs is in crisis mode.

“It’s the quality of the people that’s the problem,” said Sean Ray, workforce development manager at Sundt Construction, among Arizona’s largest construction companies. “We can hire people all day. We have people coming to the job site that aren’t even sure how to hold a hammer.”

Community colleges are key to training construction workers

Ray has collaborated with Central Arizona College, a community college just south of Phoenix, to reshape a residential construction program into two programs for industrial and concrete construction tailored specifically for Sundt’s needs.

This has created a one-year, 30-credit course, offered for the first time this fall, where graduates qualify for a job at Sundt, said Kristen Benedict, chair of advanced technology at Central Arizona College.

“When Sundt came to us, we understood their company mentality,” Benedict said. ”Sundt was instrumental in working with us for the course work. They get the opportunity to vet the students first.”

CAC has 106 students enrolled in its construction, heavy equipment and welding programs that are all designed to have certificate holders job-ready. The college is working with Northern Arizona University to create a bachelor’s degree in industrial management with 90 units from CAC and 30 units in online coursework with NAU, Benedict said.

“For years in the past, being academics, we always thought we knew what industry wanted instead of sitting back and letting industry tell us what needs to be in a certificate,” Benedict said.

Western States Equipment Company, a Caterpillar dealer in Meridian, is the only business so far to collaborate directly with the College of Western Idaho to provide diesel technician certificates and associates degrees specifically designed to meet Western States’ needs. With CWI only nine years old, the college is still feeling its way in establishing certificate programs based specifically on employer needs, said Mark Browning, CWI’s vice president of communications.

“We have a responsibility to fix that pipeline,” Browning said. “We’re looking at everything every day.”

The big push at CWI is reinventing the standard two-year community college model to better fit in a work world that can’t wait two years for certificated workers, he said.

“The day is coming when we won’t brand ourselves as a two-year institution,” Browning said. “We are trying to expand and condense every program (in construction fields).”

CWI wants to apply this philosophy to offer certification programs in 13 to 15 months in other fields such as engineering and nursing, Browning said.

The challenge is finding construction companies to partner with CWI, Hammon said.

“It’s not the norm yet,” Hammon said. “We’ve talked to CWI and the new college at Idaho Falls (College of Eastern Idaho). We’re trying to figure out how it would fit into their programs and how much it costs.”

Hammon is looking at the Construction Careers Now program established in 2016 by the Colorado Contractors Association (CCA), the Hispanic Contractors of Colorado and the Emily Griffith Technical College in Denver. The four-week program is a free orientation for construction careers that includes a hiring fair with construction companies.

“I’d love to go to the Legislature this winter and say, ‘here’s a successful program in the curriculum in Colorado and we can make it work in Idaho,’” Hammon said. “What I’m talking about is designing a program that at the end of it there is a job waiting for me.”

The construction industry finds itself in a perfect storm to find willing, let alone qualified, construction workers. Job training is only part of the challenge.

Neil Nelson
Neil Nelson

“It’s generational, having problems filling those positions,” said Neil Nelson, president at ESI Construction in Meridian, the general contractor for many of the Treasure Valley’s largest projects. “There are less millennials wanting to go into construction.”

Hammon hopes swiftly increasing wages in the construction trades will better attract the younger generations.

“All across Idaho we are seeing the value of talent rising rapidly,” Hammon said. “Skilled craft workers might have been making only $4 an hour in 2015, but are now commanding more than triple that amount. In addition, unskilled general laborers are now being paid almost twice the federal minimum wage.”

State labor programs can also get people ready for construction careers

One avenue to introduce and prepare people for construction careers is through the Idaho Department of Labor, Hammon said.

Hammon’s Idaho AGC collaborated with Labor in 2016 to offer Building Our Future, a six-week introduction to construction for at-risk young adults aged 18 to 24. It was limited to a single session because it was funded by a federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Grant.

Hammon said 20 students applied, 18 showed up, 16 finished the program and all but one got job offers from the 15 construction companies Hammon lined up to participate in Building Our Future.

“That’s a really nice piece of pipeline that worked for 15 companies,” Hammon said. “I probably have 45 other companies that would like to do this.”

Because of the federal grant, Building Our Future was limited to high-school dropouts or aging-out foster children, said Derek Harris, regional manager for Labor’s Region 3 West.

“Labor can play a definite role (in training future construction workers) but we would have to have industry support,” Harris said. “The real challenge is just getting kids to see construction is a good field to go into and give it a shot.”

Hammon wants to send that message to the Legislature to draw more state funding to train construction workers.

“We are actively working on legislation for the upcoming session that would authorize actions like this on an ongoing basis,” Hammon said. “The program Idaho Labor did as a pilot was targeted specifically to the population they identified. The program we are exploring with the community colleges would be open to any Idaho resident.”

The Idaho Department of Labor has also offered registered apprenticeships since 1937, but in recent times participation didn’t increase substantially until October 2016. Since then, Labor has registered 416 apprentices in all fields with 300 of them in the construction trades, said John Russ, Labor’s area manager for the southwest area.

“Our goal is to have as many as we can as quickly as we can,” Russ said. “At least people can get in and earn while they learn.”

Labor administers the apprenticeships and participating companies decide the education component, whether it’s online, a vendor, College of Western Idaho or Boise State University, Russ said.

“It’s all dependent on the employer,” he said

The paid apprenticeships can last one to four years. Completion of an apprenticeship qualifies graduates for a job.

“Apprenticeships are an important piece of the training puzzle,” Hammon said.“However, with Idaho’s desperate need for construction workers, we can’t wait for apprentices to be ready.”

Contractors: The trades badly need more skilled workers

Concrete workers at the site of the future St. Luke's Children's Pavilion in Boise last spring.
Concrete workers at the site of the future St. Luke’s Children’s Pavilion in Boise last spring. The Associated General Contractors of America plans to release recommendations for public officials August 29 on how to increase the pipeline of skilled workers. File photo

The number of construction jobs in Idaho remained on an even keel in July, continuing a trend that started in March.

About 43,000 to 44,000 people are building homes, commercial, office and industrial structures in the state, according to the Associated General Contractors of America.

AGC’s monthly count had Idaho with 43,700 construction jobs in July, a 3.6 percent increase from the prior July. This ranked Idaho No. 20 among states.

Idaho has been hovering around No. 20 since March after consistently ranking in the Top 5 in year-over year job growth with double-digit percentage job increases since 2015 until February. Several large construction projects have been winding down since then.

Idaho did add 100 construction jobs from June to July, ranking No. 23, as construction started on the Boise State University Fine Arts Building. Construction is also imminent on an 86,000-square-foot office/retail building for Norco in Meridian.

Idaho job numbers have stalled, in part, because of a shortage of qualified construction workers, said Jerry Frank, president and CEO at PETRA Inc., a Meridian-based general contractor.

“It is definitely an employees’ market right now,” Frank said. “It is really testing the loyalty of our team.”

A construction worker shortages is a national malaise. AGC on Aug. 29 will release regional and state construction worker shortage data and suggest steps public officials can take to increase the number of qualified workers.

Neighboring states are faring better in finding construction workers.

Oregon, Nevada, Utah and Washington exceeded Idaho’s construction job growth rate in July, as they have all year. Oregon and Nevada ranked No. 1 and No. 2 with 13.2 percent and 12.8 percent increases in July, according to AGC statistics.

Construction jobs put Idaho at No. 2 in nation

A Treasure Valley construction site.
A Treasure Valley construction site. Idaho added 4,500 construction jobs between January 2016 and January 2017, an 11.3 percent increase. File photo.

Construction worker shortages in Idaho and across the country have not stopped Oregon and Idaho from ranking No. 1 and No.  2 in construction job growth from January 2016 to January 2017, according to the Associated General Contractors of America.

Idaho added 4,500 construction jobs, an 11.3 percent increase over January 2016, to reach 44,200 for the first time since August 2008.

Idaho’s No. 2 status is reflected across the state as all five metropolitan areas fell with the Top 83 in construction job growth among the nations’ 358 metropolitan statistical areas. Boise had the highest percentage increase in construction jobs a couple months in 2016 but in January ranked No. 38 with 1,600 jobs added from January to January, a 9-percent increase.

Lewiston and Pocatello each added 400 construction jobs, gains of 36 percent and 29 percent, respectively, to rank No. 1 and 3 in the nation with Lewiston matching Grand Forks, N.D., in the top spot. Couer D’Alene ranked No. 38 with a 7-percent gain with 300 jobs added, and Idaho Falls came in at No. 83 with 200 new jobs or a 6-percent increase.

“If you could add 3,000 or 4,000 construction jobs, we could handle it real easy,” said Kelly Perryman, owner of Perryman Construction Management in Nampa. “My framer had 150 people in 2007. Now he has 55 to 60 and he can’t find any more. He could double his size and keep them busy if he could find them.”

Perryman says the labor shortage is slowing construction project down across the Treasure Valley. He said multi-family projects he’s building now typically take seven months and are now stretched out over nine months.

From December to January, Idaho added 1,100 construction workers, a 2.6 percent increase, ranking 12th in the country – in the midst of snow carpeting the Treasure Valley for 56 consecutive days.

Strong gains in Idaho are countered by year-over-year construction job losses in 10 states and 104 metro areas, according to AGC statistics.

Construction job growth simmered at 5.1 percent in January

A worker at the Gardner Company's City Center construction project in downtown Boise.
A worker at the Gardner Company’s City Center construction project in downtown Boise. Idaho has ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the nation for its construction job growth gains over most of the last 12 months. Photo by Erika Sather-Smith.

Construction jobs in Idaho have hit a sort of sweet spot for the moment at about 39,000 jobs across the state.

Idaho throughout 2015 general ranked No. 1 or 2 in the nation with the percentage of construction job gains, each month typically seeing 3,000 or 4,000 more construction workers than the same month the prior year. Idaho routinely saw 10 to 15 percent increases in job gains in 2015.

The picture so far in 2016 has altered as the Associated General Contractors of America reports that Idaho ranked No. 21 in January for construction job gains with a more modest increase of 5.1 percent or 1,900 more jobs than in January 2015.

Broken down to individual metropolitan areas, Boise ranked No. 29 and  saw a 12 percent increase in construction jobs comparing the past two Januaries with an increase from 16,200 to 18,200 jobs, according to AGC statistics.

No Idaho metros saw job losses and the lowest ranking cities were Lewiston and Pocatello, both at No. 244 out of 358 metros with no change in construction jobs. Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls ranked at No. 184 with 3 percent gains.
In September, several Idaho metros were among the lowest ranked on the AGC list.

The state ranking does not concern Wayne Hammon, executive director of the Idaho Associated General Contractors.

“It’s not that the Idaho gains are less significant,” Hammon said. “We’re seeing larger states catch up to where we were a few months ago.”

The same dynamic is in play across the region. Utah, Colorado and Oregon are clumped closely together with Idaho, with construction job gains of 5.0 to 5.7 percent, ranking between No. 17 and No. 23. Hammon said northern Nevada is similarly placed even though Las Vegas took the state as a whole to No. 3.

“More important to us than rankings with other states is how contractors are doing on the ground,” Hammon said. “Our people are reporting to us they are busy. There’s lots of work, tons of it in the pipeline, lots of little stuff, rehabs, tenant improvements, remodels.”

Construction jobs have hovered between about 39,000 and 40,000 since January 2015 after sitting in the 34,000 to 36,000 range in 2014. Hammon said job growth may have leveled off or the time being.

“I think we reached a level we can sustain for several months,” Hammon said.

This story was updated with more detail at 7:50 am on March 18.


Construction managers: Schools need to invest in trades

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.