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Construction industry voices offer perspectives on labor shortage

Builders and an educator weigh in on the problem and how they're dealing with it.

  • By Brian Hartz
  • | 6:00 a.m. March 20, 2020
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
File. Willy Nunn, president of Homes By WestBay, a Riverview-based builder.
File. Willy Nunn, president of Homes By WestBay, a Riverview-based builder.
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Willy Nunn, president of Homes By WestBay

For Willy Nunn, the root cause of the construction labor shortage that has plagued Florida developers and builders is easy to pinpoint. 

“If you look back to the crash of 2008-09, a whole of people left the industry,” says Nunn, president of Riverview-based Homes By WestBay, a privately held residential builder. “Not just homebuilding, but the trades that do a lot of the work. And they’ve been very slow to come back.” 

'Making a living with your hands has a lot more dignity today than it did even five years ago.' Willy Nunn, president of Homes By WestBay

What’s not easy is a solution. From Nunn’s standpoint as a regional builder, the available pool of construction labor has been steadily bouncing back since 2012, but the growth hasn’t been enough to keep up with the strong demand for housing in the Tampa Bay region that's being driven by a surge in population growth. That means “it’s a great time to get into the construction trades,” he says. 

Unfortunately, negative perceptions among young workers about construction trade careers have played a role in the shortage. Good news is, Nunn says, attitudes are slowly beginning to change. 

“Making a living with your hands has a lot more dignity today than it did even five years ago,” he says. “I think our education system, our public schools, are starting to recognize that college isn't for everybody and that there are good ways to make a living as tradesmen and tradeswomen. Those are significant pivot points.” 

Nunn says the best way for builders and developers to succeed in such a tight market for construction labor and trades is to be a preferred client. That means being impeccably organized. 

“We provide our subcontractors with the most timely and precise information we possibly can in terms of what we need, where we need it and when we need it,” he says. “When you're delivering 600 homes that have a lot of options in them, that's no small feat. And having good quality site supervision is everything for the homebuilder.” 

Elaine Liftin, president and executive director of the Council for Educational Change

Government, educational and nonprofit organizations like the Council for Educational Change are on the front lines of addressing the construction labor shortage, President and Executive Director Elaine Liftin says. The Weston-based organization offers a Career Awareness Leadership Forum that allows industry experts to share their knowledge of their respective fields with school principals, teachers and students to increase awareness of job opportunities. 

Elaine Liftin, president and executive director of the Council for Educational Change. Courtesy photo.
Elaine Liftin, president and executive director of the Council for Educational Change. Courtesy photo.

Construction labor and trades are near and dear to the CEC’s heart, Liftin says, because the organization was the idea of the late Leonard Miller, who co-founded Lennar Corp., one of the nation’s largest production homebuilders. It’s also a product of the South Florida Annenberg Challenge, a $100 million educational improvement partnership program that began in 1993 with the backing of philanthropist Walter Annenberg. 

“When we scaled up into the Council for Educational Change and became a statewide organization, my key mission was to engage business executives to improve performance in public schools,” says Liftin, a former Miami-Dade County public school teacher and principal who has led the CEC since 2001. “My board is a business board, and they really were concerned about the job skills mismatch. A lot of the business people are saying: ‘We have job openings we cannot fill. Students are not graduating with the skill to take advantage of the existing jobs.’”

For a fee of about $25,000 — more if its staff have to travel outside South Florida — the CEC will conduct Career Awareness Leadership Forums that bring leaders of as many as a dozen schools together with representatives from industries like construction to discuss employment issues and formulate strategies that will better prepare students to enter the workforce. The forums usually consist of four half-day sessions held at both schools and work sites.

Liftin says 70% of student participants at a Hillsborough County forum geared toward hospitality and tourism management said they intended to seek jobs in that field. “Participation in the forum helped to illuminate potential career paths for them.”

Jonathan Russell, president of Cotton Construction

Jonathan Russell, having recently moved from Texas to Florida to start Cotton, a St. Petersburg-based construction firm, brings an outsider’s perspective to the labor shortage discussion. In short: The problem is more acute in the Sunshine State. 

Jonathan Russell, president of Cotton Construction. Courtesy photo.
Jonathan Russell, president of Cotton Construction. Courtesy photo.

The rapid pace of development in the Tampa Bay region, in particular, has driven labor challenges for small- and medium-sized firms like Cotton, which Russell says has five full-time employees and is on track to do $40 million to $50 million in revenue in 2020. It’s not just the amount of development but also the size and scope, with massive projects like the $3 billion Water Street Tampa “consuming every bit of labor,” he says. 

“We went through this years ago in Houston,” Russell adds. Prior to Cotton, he worked for Turner Construction, a large national firm that would routinely do $500 million to $600 million worth of projects per year just in Houston. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen a lot of $100 million projects in Houston. Normally you have one or two, but looking at this area, there’s probably 20 coming along, easily.” 

The upside of the surge in large-scale, $100 million-plus developments is it creates opportunities for firms like Cotton to grab projects in the $5 million to $20 million range other builders pass on in favor of big stuff. “It’s leaving a lot of room for us,” Russell says. 

Russell hasn’t had to delay or pull out of any projects due to the unavailability of labor. But he says it’s common to have to share subcontractors with several other projects.

Also, like some of his industry peers, he doesn’t see any easy solutions to the labor shortage, framing it as a long-term demographic challenge. “I don’t see as many young people as I would like,” he says. “I mean, would you rather be a superintendent on a job site or work for Verizon?” 

Josh Christensen, COO of Suffolk

Even big national builders like Boston-based Suffolk, which has a large presence in Florida and particularly the Gulf Coast, have felt the pinch of the construction labor shortage. 

Josh Christensen, COO of Suffolk. Courtesy photo.
Josh Christensen, COO of Suffolk. Courtesy photo.

Suffolk COO Josh Christensen says the labor shortage has put the onus on developers and builders like Suffolk to be an employer of choice and a preferred partner of subcontractors and trades. “In a hot industry [like construction], a good project manager or superintendent can have their pick of anywhere to work,” he says, “which is a good thing.” 

To increase retention of internal hires, Suffolk created a two-year career start program for new hires that rotates them through departments like project management, virtual design modeling, estimating and worksite safety. Suffolk’s internal research, Christensen says, reveals that more than 90% of Career Start program participants stay with Suffolk for 10 years or longer. 

“They get a strong understanding of each function within the company and its responsibilities,” Christensen says. “All of the options kind of have very similar career paths and pay structure — and that's an intentional thing.” 

Another winning strategy has been the comfortable worksite environment Suffolk strives to create for subcontractors. The firm sets up tents filled with picnic tables, fans, TVs, hand-washing stations and other amenities for its partners in the trades. It will even bring in a barber and pick up workers’ dry cleaning. 


Click here to learn how the construction industry faces persistent labor shortage.


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