As Florida recovers from the economic crisis and major construction projects get the green light, contractors can expect to face a critical shortage of skilled workers, says Steve Cona III, CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors' Gulf Coast chapter in Tampa.
Veteran electricians, mechanics, HVAC installers, welders, and carpenters are reaching retirement age with the baby boomer generation. Meanwhile, the ranks of skilled construction workers already were thinned by the recession, which dramatically slowed development and drove thousands of workers out of Florida in search of paying projects. Other construction workers simply abandoned the industry and haven't returned.
For example, during the building boom in 2006, the state had nearly 700,000 workers in the construction industry, according to Florida Department of Opportunity numbers. In December, that number was less than half, with 318,400 people employed in the construction industry in Florida.
Now, developers are planning new hotels, a $50 million pier project in St. Petersburg, and an $85 million residential tower in Tampa, among other Gulf Coast projects. Many CEOs who want to expand or relocate to a new headquarters as sales improve, or as some companies grow by merging with other firms, could find their plans subject to delay.
“We get calls every day from contractors who are looking for job site supervisors and superintendents,” says Cona. But qualified workers with skills comparable to those of retiring veterans are scarce, since most newcomers aren't seasoned. “They don't have the knowledge it takes to build a 35-story condo building, a 40-story hotel or a baseball stadium.”
Training programs can help avert a worker shortage, says Cona. “It's mission critical for the entire industry that training our next generation of work force is at the top of the priority chain.” The contractors' group offers a four-year apprenticeship program in building trades through Hillsborough Community College, and an electricians program in Sarasota, where ABC plans to expand its offerings. Construction companies also provide task training, to teach specific skills in months, rather than years.
Under ABC's apprenticeship program, participants work days, and take hands-on training two nights a week. Sponsoring contractors pay $500 a year to send an apprentice to school, says Cona.
Nationally, ABC represents 22,000 construction-related companies and acts as a conservative lobbyist on their behalf. Its apprenticeship programs are registered with the U.S. Department of Labor. It also provides craft training through a not-for-profit foundation, the National Center for Construction Education and Research, which aims to standardize training and credentialing for the industry.
Still, it's a challenge to attract high school students to construction trades at a time when many students feel pressure to attend college.
Construction trades offer an alternative for high school grads who don't wish to attend college, or can't afford a university, says Cona. Unlike college, which usually is paid by a student or parents who may incur debt to fund the education, the apprenticeships are paid by the employer. Municipalities also could underwrite training, Cona adds.
Besides targeting new high school grads, ABC is reaching out to veterans returning to Tampa Bay from tours of duty in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Although the national unemployment rate was 7.9% in January, the unemployment rate for returning veterans was 17.1%, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Veterans tend to be disciplined, skilled, and safety-minded, says Cona. On a job site, perhaps 30 stories in the air, “safety is of the utmost importance.”
Veterans and other workers could potentially earn $50,000 to $80,000 a year in specialized or construction management positions, after training and a few years on the job, Cona notes. “They can earn a very good living.”