Originally created 10/12/03

Construction industry faces shortage of skilled workers



Instead of a mall, Herman Cummings hung out at construction sites when he was a teenager.

After school he pushed wheelbarrows, hauled bricks and studied skilled brick masons on the finer points of "buttering" blocks with mortar.

He learned the trade. Then he learned the business. Now he owns his own company, Cummings Construction.

Today, as he looks out over his crew building an addition at Glenn Hills Elementary School, the Soperton, Ga., contractor sees only middle-age men like himself, workers with a skill that few people are interested in learning.

Young people, it seems, don't want a job that makes them sweat.

"They just ain't built like the older people," he said.

Skilled construction workers - brick masons, carpenters and electricians, for example - earn more than the average hourly worker, but across the nation the construction industry is having trouble bringing in new blood.

With the average construction worker at age 49, the industry fears a labor shortage when today's workers hang up their tools in 10 to 15 years.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that construction employment will grow 1.2 percent a year until 2010, compared with 6.4 percent for computer-related professions and 4.6 percent for health care.

A potential labor shortage in one of the country's largest employment sectors could stifle economic growth through building delays and higher prices, according to a recent study by global construction giant Atkins.

Another scenario has immigrants flooding the industry to take jobs not being filled by American workers.

Builders have complained of a skill shortage since the 1990s building boom. The labor crunch again will be a major issue when construction activity picks up.

"It's not a huge crisis at the moment, but looking down the road, once things start heating up again, we're back to square one," said Dennis Day, director of public affairs for the Associated General Contractors of America.

Many construction jobs in the Southeast are being filled by immigrants, mostly from Mexico and Central America, though the federal and state governments have no statistics on how many.

Hiring foreign-born workers is not a short-term answer to the problem. Most are unskilled and are slow to learn because of language barriers.

"They are very good workers, but they do not have the tradesman skills that the journeymen workers did years ago," said Jim Pustejovksy, the Atlanta-based regional vice president for Hanscomb Faithful & Gould, an Atkins subsidiary. "Getting the workers is not a problem; getting the training is."

Including the self-employed, nearly 10 million people work in construction, ranging from unskilled laborers to pipefitters to office secretaries.

Most construction projects are overseen by a general contractor, who coordinates groups of workers, called subcontractors, to ensure jobs are completed on time and on budget. Because the subcontractors are the industry's front line, they feel the most strain from tight labor situations.

INDUSTRY OFFICIALS SAY the looming skilled-worker shortage could be particularly pronounced in the Southeast because there are already fewer skilled workers.

Labor unions, which historically have been the training ground for tradespeople, have a scant presence in the South.

In the union-entrenched Northeast, for example, few projects are done without union labor, and most workers have four or more years of apprentice training.

Augusta's construction industry has been largely nonunion since the 1970s, when contractors hired mostly nonunion workers to replace union laborers sent to build Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro, Ga.

Tom Jenkins said there might not be as much a labor shortage as an unwillingness to hire union workers, whose skill levels and benefits packages make them more expensive than other workers.

The business manager for the Carpenters and Millwrights Local 283 said government institutions and large industrial companies are about the only sectors that value precision over price now.

Just about everyone else is content to use immigrant labor and less-skilled workers.

"I don't have so much trouble finding young people who want to work in the building trade as I do providing work for young people in the building trade," Mr. Jenkins said.

REGARDLESS, MOST AGREE that there's a need to attract young workers. To do so, though, the industry must clean up its image problem.

In an increasingly service-oriented economy, fewer people are interested in manual-labor jobs, which often are seen as dirty, dangerous and dead-end occupations.

"It's kind of a class issue," said Ken Richards of Augusta's Pierwood Construction. Mr. Richards is president of the Builders Association of Metro Augusta. "There's a perception that if you don't go to college and get a white-collar job, then you're not successful."

While young people are steered toward careers with more social respectability, the industry tries to shed its ditch-digger image through education.

Augusta Technical College, which offers vocational training programs, recently held a luncheon for area high school counselors to show them how many construction jobs can lead to stable, well-paying careers.

"There was a very good reaction when they found out all of the things we can do for the high school student," said Ray Center, Augusta Tech's dean of industrial and engineering technology.

Many young people who get a taste of construction work want to make it their career, such as 24-year-old David LaRoche, a Connecticut native who recently moved to Augusta.

The father of two got his start working in high school as a laborer for his brother-in-law's construction company in his hometown of New Fairfield, Conn.

"When I started, I wasn't sure if it was what I wanted to do," said Mr. LaRoche, an employee of Grade South, a Savannah River Site subcontractor. "I found that I liked working outdoors. I love being able to work with my hands, to work both mentally and physically."

Curtis Mosley, a 22-year-old Aiken resident who works for Bechtel Savannah River, SRS's main construction contractor, decided that he wanted to work in construction after helping build a Habitat for Humanity home in the ninth grade.

"It just kind of stuck with me," he said. "I've always like building stuff."

BOTH MR. LAROCHE and Mr. Mosley are working toward being journeymen carpenters through the Carpenters and Millwrights Local 283 apprentice program.

Aside from earning the journeyman title, a symbol of expertise in the trades, they joined the local for its health insurance and retirement plan, funded by a 30-cent-per-hour pay deduction.

Many of their contemporaries don't have such benefits.

Although construction workers are well paid - the typical worker's weekly wage of $702 beats the average worker's by $230 - the industry's dirty secret is that many receive nothing but a pay stub. That's because eight out of every 10 are employed by small companies, according to federal labor statistics.

Some in the industry aren't even considered "employees" in the legal sense. They're paid as contract workers using 1099 forms, which makes taxes and other withholding their own responsibility.

Others are paid in cash "under the table."

"I've seen it happen everywhere, in all parts of the country," said Bill Price, 62, an Augusta carpenter who works as a self-employed remodeling contractor.

He said none of the construction companies he has worked for during the past four decades have offered health insurance or a pension plan, benefits that most nonconstruction workers take for granted.

Though he has never had trouble providing for his wife and seven children, he acknowledges that he is without a safety net in his twilight years.

"I'm just going to keep working until I can't work anymore," he said.

Job security is another concern. When a construction job ends, it may be weeks or months before another one materializes. Some workers must move around to find work.

"It can be a fairly nomadic lifestyle, moving from job to job, city to city," Mr. Pustejovksy said. "That's not for everybody."

But then again, neither are office jobs.

Many in the construction industry bristle at the notion of mechanically inclined youngsters being guided toward four-year liberal arts schools when they would rather be working with their hands and learning a trade.

"Not everyone is cut out to work in an office or a factory," said Don Rupert, who oversees Hanscomb/GMK's five-year, $150 million construction and renovation program for Richmond County's school district.

Mr. Rupert declined to say how much he earns as a project manager, only that he is "comfortable." Construction, he said, is still one of the few industries where you can work your way up the ladder.

"If you've got a guy who wants to learn, you can train him and in six months he can be making $11 or $12 an hour," he said.

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486 or damon.cline@augustachronicle.com.