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Construction industry faces persistent labor shortage

The construction field is getting squeezed on both ends — not as many young people are entering the industry and more people, especially the bulge of baby boomers, are retiring.

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  • | 6:10 a.m. March 20, 2020
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  • Development-Construction
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It’s still a big problem.

That’s the word from several of the region’s construction industry leaders. The labor shortage that got so much attention a couple years ago hasn’t been solved. Companies are hurting, projects are getting delayed, and firms are looking for ways to alleviate the shortage. 

“It’s still as bad as ever,” Gulf Coast Builders Exchange Executive Director Mary Dougherty says.

Dougherty’s group advocates for the building industry in Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties. Members tell her they’re looking for employees across the spectrum, from skilled labor to those with college degrees. Some general contractors have also faced challenges even trying to get subcontractors to bid on projects because they have all the work they can handle.

Steve Cona III, president and CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors Florida Gulf Coast Chapter in Tampa, tells the same story. He says that as demand for more construction projects continues to grow, the need for skilled labor grows with it. “I think it’s coming to a head now because of the amount of work we have, especially in Florida,” Cona says.

Ryan Benson, immediate past president of the Collier Building Industry Association and principal of A. Vernon Allen Builder in Naples says that’s true farther south too. “We still have demand that has not slowed down, and there’s not a new group of labor force available to accommodate the consistent high demand,” he says. He’s seen firms turn down projects or limit themselves geographically because they don’t have the bandwidth to execute them.

Part of the problem, industry leaders say, is the field is getting squeezed on both ends — not as many young people are entering the industry and more people, especially the bulge of baby boomers, are retiring. “We have an aging workforce,” Cona says. “Unfortunately, it’s kind of a perfect storm when you have an aging workforce that’s retiring and not enough people coming to fill those gaps.”

Dougherty agrees, calling the situation a “retirement tsunami.” Although some statistics show that's supposed to be a few years out, Dougherty thinks it’s happening now. “Frankly, in my every day, I’m seeing more and more people retire,” she says. “I’m beginning to feel the start of that.”

Proactive approach 

That’s one of the reasons why leaders say it’s important to get more young people involved in construction.

Dougherty says schools used to offer shop classes, giving students a chance to see if they were interested in construction. Many students who weren’t college bound did turn to construction, going to work right out of high school. But significantly fewer students choose that path today. 

“I think we’ve, for many years now, decided that every kid has to go to college, and we’ve pushed that narrative,” Cona says. As a result, students didn’t partake in the trades. “We need to change that narrative again,” he says.

Part of doing that, he says, involves offering educational opportunities in middle and high schools and apprenticeships for those over 18. “Some of these folks see our industry as a last resort when it should have been presented to them at the beginning when they could have made an educated decision based on where the jobs are,” Cona says.

'For a lot of people it’s a very lucrative career. Some people go on to owning their own trade and make a very comfortable six-figure living doing so.' Ryan Benson, A. Vernon Allen Builder

Benson thinks things are changing — people are beginning to understand there are good careers in the construction industry, and he's seeing more young people enter the field. But not at rate to stem the tide of people leaving the sector. 

Some organizations and groups in the region are taking a proactive approach to the problem. 

Four years ago, for example, the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange started a construction rodeo to get high school students from Manatee and Sarasota interested in construction. The daylong event attracts about 500 students, introducing them to the trades through hands-on activities, conversations with employees and opportunities for internships and apprenticeships. Dougherty says the rodeos have been successful, resulting in several internships and apprenticeships.

Part of the construction industry appeal that needs to be touted, Dougherty says, are the financial benefits. Young people can make a good living in construction right out of high school, she says.

Benson agrees — making young people aware of the potential monetary rewards is key. Students need to know they can make a high five-figure salary without accumulating debt from college. “For a lot of people, it’s a very lucrative career,” he says. “Some people go on to owning their own trade and make a very comfortable six-figure living doing so.”  

That’s one of the positive notes among the shortage woes, Cona says. To meet demand, wages are going up. Plus, companies that want to keep good employees are investing in them through apprenticeships and promotions. He says, “It’s been great for the worker because people have been fast-tracked in the industry.”

Get an edge

Although Dougherty says it’s important to show students the possibilities of a career in construction, it’s almost more important to make the case to parents and school counselors. To that end, Gulf Coast Builders Exchange is considering hosting a two-in-one event next year — a rodeo during the day and a job fair at night parents would be invited to attend.

Construction career fairs are part of the solution, Benson says. He also points to the role of vocational schools and universities. Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, for one, introduced a construction management program in fall 2019. Benson, who serves on the program’s advisory board, says it started with nearly 40 students and this year it has over 100 applicants.

His firm, A. Vernon Allen Builder, started an internship program with students from FGCU and the University of Florida’s building construction program. “Everyone has had to ad hoc their own programs as the formal programs are developing themselves,” Benson says. “In the meantime, a lot of us didn’t have the ability to sit around and wait, so we had to create our own programs.”

Associated Builders and Contractors, meanwhile, runs an apprenticeship program Cona says is currently training about 500 apprentices in about eight different trades. Those in the program work for a company during the day and attend classes and hands-on training at night. “We’ve been doing that since the 1970s,” he says. “Our apprenticeship training program continues to grow and grow.”

Mireya Eavey, executive vice president of CareerEdge with The Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, recently received an employment research report that will help direct the organization’s efforts to help with the construction labor shortage. CareerEdge has worked on similar efforts for the heath care and manufacturing industries and has worked with Suncoast Technical College in Sarasota and Manatee Technical College in Bradenton on fast-track programs for the HVAC and plumbing fields. “There are a tremendous amount of [construction] job openings, and there are good wages, and there are good career opportunities,” she says.

Individual firms have developed solutions on a micro level, too. That includes doing more prefabrication, Cona says, because when parts of projects are built in a controlled environment, construction site staff can be used more efficiently. Benson says, "A lot of organizations independently have taken their own initiatives toward filling that void in the workplace.”  


Click here to read builders and an educator weigh in on the construction labor shortage and how they're dealing with it.


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