Sunday, September 13, 2015 / by Michael Donovan
Construction firms in Southwest Florida are struggling to find qualified workers, and the region is not alone.
An overwhelming majority of such firms report trouble finding craft workers to fill key spots as demand for construction continues to rebound, according to the results of an industrywide survey released Thursday by the Associated General Contractors of America.
Of the 1,358 survey respondents of the survey, which was taken in July and August:
- 86 percent said they are having difficulty filling hourly craft or salaried professional positions.
- 79 percent nationwide said they are having a hard time filling one or more of 21 hourly craft professional positions
- 73 percent that employ carpenters report difficulty, other tough jobs to fill: sheet metal installers and concrete workers
- 52 percent are having a hard time filling salaried professional positions, including project managers/supervisors, estimators and engineers
Twenty-six Florida employers answered the survey, with each one reporting having trouble filling salaried and/or hourly positions. The biggest challenges, according to state survey results, are filling positions of carpenters, concrete workers, equipment workers, electricians and iron workers. The largest challenges filling salaried positions are in project managers/supervisors, engineers and estimators. Florida employers don’t expect that to change anytime soon, most responded, and some think it will get even harder. Most employers in the state, the survey says, have increased base pay rates to retain or attract talent.
“It’s a very easy quote. There are not enough people,” said L.J. Zielke, president of Florida Academy in Fort Myers. “We on a weekly basis have calls from contractors asking for graduates.”
The school, on Colonial Boulevard, is having a career fair from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday, with 40 employers expected.
The labor issue has put the school and students in an odd position, he said, because employers are willing to hire students before they’ve completed the program.
“That leaves the student in a dilemma. Do they finish the program or leave school to take the job?” Zielke said. “At the same time, we want to help our local employers. We have come to strike a nice balance lately, that is having employers work with students on a part-time basis and that has been very well-received.”
Bryan Arnold, 30, has been working Saturdays for Gulfshore Cooling, gaining on-the-job experience as he finishes his training program at Florida Academy.
“Everything I’m learning is being applied,” he said, adding he expects to have an $18 to $20 per hour full-time job with Gulfshore Cooling after he graduates in November.
Florida Academy on Wednesday is launching a part-time evening program in HVAC. The 900-hour program will include instruction Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The class, which now has 10 people, will be capped at 14.
“This way students can work in the daytime and go to school at night to work toward those certifications,” Zielke said.
Eric Little, service manager for Gulfshore Cooling, said it’s hard to find good talent.
“There’s just not a lot of people out there who want to do the business or are qualified to do the business,” he said. “Most employers are going to take care of the guys who are at the top end, because you just can’t keep them.”
The only solution Little sees is to get more people interested in learning HVAC and the other trades.
“There’s good money to be made for those who learn,” he said. “The potential down the road is just incredible.”
“It’s rumored that Contractor A is going to Contractor B’s job site and offering a premium to leave that site and go to his site,” he said. “So, that’s a problem. If labor is in short supply, that’s going to drive labor costs, which is going to raise the cost of new construction.”
In looking at the matter today compared to boom times of 10 to 12 years ago, Stouder noted that the number of permits pulled back then was abundantly more.
“It’s the same problem, but it’s not at the same scale,” he said. “We’ve got growth beginning to happen, and it’s happening at a much slower pace.”
Bob Koenig is vice president of construction for Chris Tel Construction. The Fort Myers firm is preparing to start work on the Estero Boulevard utilities replacement project and work on the headquarters of Somero Enterprises, which manufactures laser-guided machinery used in concrete placement.
“There definitely is a shortage of qualified tradespeople in the area right now, across the board,” Koenig said, mentioning carpenters and drywall installers in particular.
Drew Broderick, who worked in the housing construction industry, recently moved on to a $12-an-hour job as an apprentice helper in commercial refrigeration. He sees a bubble building.
“I still think there’s too much going on,” he said. “All of the jobs we did, we never once worked for a middle-class family. It was always big corporations or investors. I still think that there’s not a real good market going on. It’s a false market.”
Foreign buyers and retired baby boomers, Broderick said, were the end users for many of the residential construction projects he worked on. That’s gotten him even more worried about affordable housing, a matter he knows all too well: “I’m still homeless and just barely skating by the skin of my teeth."
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More survey results
- 36 percent of firms report losing hourly craft professionals to other local construction firms, and 21 percent to other industries locally, while 13 percent of firms report losing workers to construction firms in other locations.
- Growing competition for workers is prompting 56 percent of firms to increase base pay rates for hourly craft professionals. Also, 43 percent of firms have increased their reliance on subcontractors because of tight labor conditions.
Seven key takeaways, after listening to a call of construction industry experts:
- The nation’s education focus has moved away from the trades. As a result, too few students are exposed to construction careers.
- The construction trades have an aging workforce, so younger people need to enter it in order for it to become more sustainable.
- Technology has changed dramatically in recent years, so students graduating now from technical schools have the latest skills.
- There are a lack of trained, qualified workers. As a result, work may not be up to par and in some cases has to be redone.
- The Great Recession pushed a lot of people out of the construction industry, and many of those who left aren’t coming back.
- Wage increases help workers, but narrow margins for employers and increase costs for project developers, which leads to higher costs to end users.
- If the labor issue becomes worse, it’s possible it could delay construction because there aren’t enough workers to meet demand.