Labor pains continue

Finding and keeping good workers is a challenge for any builder — whether urban or rural — and statistics show the challenge is getting harder.
At Astro Buildings, an Omaha-based firm that performs projects throughout Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas, construction manager Chad Rezac recruits at technical schools and advertises in rural newspapers to maintain his force of 50 employees. Lee Reger, president of Lee Reger Builds in Shinnston, W.Va., also keeps a payroll of about 50 employees. But to obtain the labor he needs, Reger has a contract with the local carpenters union.
Many other rural builders look to Hispanic immigrants for their labor needs (see Rural Builder, July 2005), builders such as Omar Khan, owner of Anglers Construction of Round Hill, Va. Without Hispanic workers to fill out his crews, he says that his company might not make it. Still another strategy, used by large numbers of rural builders, is employed by GEM Buildings Inc. of Bentonville, Ind. President Scott Walter has only two employees but takes on jobs as much as 100 miles away by hiring subcontractors to perform the work.Labor1.jpg
These four strategies — advertising, unionization, immigrant labor, outsourcing — suggest that rural builders are scrambling to find skilled and unskilled workers as much as their urban counterparts. Research shows the skilled workforce of the U.S. construction industry is aging, even as the number of young people who enter craft training is declining and the industry is failing to attract women and minorities. A 2004 study by the Construction Industry Institute (CII) concluded that skilled labor shortages will continue for at least another decade, while a recent Construction Users Roundtable poll found that 82 percent of builders surveyed have experienced shortages of skilled labor.
Similarly, the Institute warns, “the number of professionals and technical leaders that will be available in the future is diminishing.” Because college graduates are choosing other fields, CII cautions, “As members of the Baby Boomer generation approach their retirement years, the engineering and construction industry faces a growing shortfall of new leaders to replace those that leave.” Job loyalty is also on the wane, CII notes, so “retaining talent in individual companies will likely prove to be more and more difficult, as well.”
The crisis is compounded by Labor Department projections that the construction industry will need to fill 7.8 million jobs by 2012 — or 1.1 million more jobs than the 6.7 million needed in 2002. During the 10-year span, predicts the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment needs in the construction industry will rise 15 percent. As such, construction is the nation’s only goods-producing sector expected to need more people by 2012 — a good problem to have, but one that may magnify the impact of labor shortages.
Shortage likely to worsen
According to Randy Giggard, manager of the Research Services Group for the FMI Corporation of Raleigh, N.C., “There’s a real cause for concern.” FMI offers management consulting and research services to the construction industry, and has found that “with the recession of 2002-03 there were a lot of layoffs in construction, and many of those people left the industry,” reports Giggard. For that and other reasons, he adds, “The construction industry workforce keeps aging and a lot of people will be retiring in the next five to eight years.”
At the same time, he continues, the industry has been adding jobs at a rate of about 4 percent per year. “But will there be enough skilled labor to do the job?” Giggard asks. “If there aren’t enough people in craft training, the problem may spiral. Training and apprenticeship take time. It requires strong collaboration by government, unions, contractors, and all the various parties.”
In Giggard’s view, “The industry must come together and get out the message to young people that construction is a great career where you can get a good job, make good money, and quickly be in a position to start a business of your own. We also need to target demographic groups that are looking for work, such as minorities and veterans.”
Don Whyte is president of the National Center for Construction Education and Research, which is affiliated with the University of Florida at Gainesville and was created by the industry to address the problem of severe worker shortages. “The construction workforce is aging,” he affirms. The average age of craft workers today is 48, he points out, while an estimated 20 percent of craft workers are expected to retire between 2005 and 2009. “So the industry needs to recruit 250,000 new workers every year, just to maintain our current skilled workforce,” he says, “and yet the construction industry is expected to grow.”
At the same time, Whyte reports, the construction industry has an image problem. “Young people and their parents think that going to college is the mark of success,” he relates. “They think construction is low-tech. The truth is that only 50 percent of high school graduates go to college and, out of that 50 percent, only 25 percent actually graduate. So we’ve got to get the message out, especially to the middle schools and high schools, that construction is a great career opportunity.”Labor3.jpg
NCCER has 30 trade associations that partner with the organization in reaching out to some 2 million students per year. “Reaching out to minorities, especially Hispanic workers, is also important,” Whyte believes. In 1991 when NCCER was launched by the Associated Builders and Contractors, he says, “The industry didn’t have enough training programs for the craft workers the industry needs. Now we do. With the decline in unionization, the open shop segment has stepped up to provide training.”
Concern over the shortage of skilled construction labor is shared by Dede Hughes, executive vice president of the National Association of Women in Construction, headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas. “Skilled construction workers are retiring faster than they’re being replaced,” she warns.
“Women can help fill the need,” Hughes asserts. Moreover, she urges the industry to “tell students, parents, and high school guidance counselors that construction is high-tech and the pay is good. We have to overcome the mindset that says, ‘If you can’t do anything else, then work construction.’ Not everyone goes to college and construction offers a lot of different career options.”
Opportunities for women in construction abound, Hughes says, everything from millwork to doors and hardware. “Women do extremely well in trades such as electrician because they have small hands,” she suggests, “and concerns about heavy labor are outdated because we now have machinery to do most of that.” She also points out that, according to studies, the fastest-growing segment of woman-owned businesses is construction companies.
The NAWIC Education Foundation has a “Block Kids” program for elementary school kids and a CAD/Design/Drafting competition for older students. “And girls do very well!” Hughes exclaims. “Women can be, and are, very successful as skilled craft workers. They tend to be detail-oriented, which is helpful for working in construction. And women tend to like team environments. So I think in the future we’ll see more women in the construction industry — if only because we have to!”

Back to school
In addition to the NAWIC Block Kids program, other construction industry groups are placing new emphasis on reaching young people while they are still in school. David Harris is president of the National Institute of Building Sciences and also vice chair of the Washington-based ACE (Architecture, Construction and Engineering) Mentor Program. The organization pairs professional mentors with public and private high school students.
The ACE program started in 1991 with one team of 30 students in one city, mentored by volunteers from four firms. The program was incorporated as an independent nonprofit in 1995 and keeps growing. In 2003 the group fielded teams in 28 cities with more than 1,800 students and 600 professional mentors, and in 2004 doubled to teams in 61 cities with more than 3,600 students and 1,200 mentors.
Middle schoolers are the target of Janet Paulson-Smith, an assistant
professor of construction management at East Carolina University and
director of the National Fund and Institute for Construction Excellence. The Fund furnishes training and
curriculum to help middle-school teachers provide construction education for their math, science, English, and technology classes.
“About 10 years ago I heard how the construction industry was facing a critical shortage of skilled people, from craft workers to managers,” Paulson-Smith recalls. “The industry was asking why young people weren’t going into construction. So I started looking at the high schools. But I found that, by the time students are juniors and seniors, they had already self-selected themselves out of careers in construction.”
The problem? High school upperclassmen did not have enough math and science, “and it was too late to change that,” Paulson-Smith continues. “So I realized the industry needs to work with middle schools. But teachers need more than talking points.” Most middle school teachers today, she reports, “are middle-aged women who didn’t get the benefits of Title XI when they were in school and so they didn’t get to take shop classes. They need to be provided with a curriculum and with training that lets them teach about construction as part of their normal classroom instruction in math, science, and English.”Labor4.jpg
The National Fund and Institute for Construction Excellence provides real-world construction applications that are designed for any teacher to teach. “It helps kids learn their math, science, and English — which then helps schools meet their ‘No Child Left Behind’ goals,” Paulson-Smith points out, “and our curriculum gives the construction industry positive exposure with students.”
In time, she would like to see the program expanded to grades K through 12 so that students are exposed to construction every school year. “That will help overcome our image problem with young people, and the stigma that girls shouldn’t do construction,” Paulson-Smith believes. Most students today still don’t finish college; construction offers a good career and a good standard of living. Construction now accounts for about 10 percent of GNP. And construction jobs can’t easily be offshored.”
At the other end of the spectrum, the American Council for Construction Education is the accrediting agency for 67 postsecondary programs. Michael Holland is executive vice president and CEO of the San Antonio-based group. “The construction industry is continually short of educated people for management roles,” he observes. “The demand is greater than the ability to supply the need.”
The shortfall in college-educated construction managers is due to several factors. “The construction industry hasn’t exactly endeared itself to the general public,” Holland contends. “Contractors aren’t seen as professionals, compared to architects or engineers who must be licensed. High school guidance counselors don’t put construction on their lists of Top 100 jobs they recommend to students. So I think the shortage will continue.”
Out on the jobsite where it all counts, rural builder Lee Reger echoes the experts’ concerns about the shortage of construction labor. “In the past, rural builders like us used to recruit kids from the farms and hayfields,” he recalls, “but today the farms are mechanized and so kids don’t have the same physical stamina. They’d rather flip burgers or work indoors at Wal-Mart. Yet the ones who are willing to get skills training will find good jobs, good pay, and good benefits. We need to get the word out.” 

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