INSIGHT ON: Construction – Filling the gap

Posted on Aug 1, 2015 :: Construction
Andrew Schaick
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer
Workers plaster the ceiling in a new home. Courtesy: Gryboski Builders Inc.

Workers plaster the ceiling in a new home. Courtesy: Gryboski Builders Inc.

What to be when you grow up? Seems like a question all of us have asked ourselves a few times in life. For the construction industry, there is an all-out push to get people thinking about skilled trade jobs when answering the question.

Currently, a growing labor shortage exists in many sectors of the construction industry. According to a survey conducted last year by the National Association of Home Builders, there are shortages in the number of carpenters, framers, HVAC and other specific trades that could threaten future growth in the industry.

The survey showed 60 percent of builders experienced delays in completing projects on time, and 18 percent had to turn down projects as a result of labor shortages. Regional home building associations say the struggle to find skilled workers for their members is all too real.

“I hear feedback from members that they have a need for not only entry-level positions, but also some highly-skilled areas like cabinet making and carpentry,” says Mari McAllister-Charles, executive officer for the Brown County Home Builders Association. “There is a need for skilled labor within our industry.”

McAllister-Charles says most of her nearly 700 members have asked for help to recruit skilled labor for certain trade jobs. In response, programs are now in place to help recruit younger people to learn about the industry.

“Places like Neighborworks and Habitat for Humanity work closely with area school districts to help get students more involved with hands-on experience,” McAllister-Charles says. “We have programs in area high schools where students can get NWTC credit by helping in building a Habitat home or renovation projects.”

Even younger enthusiasts are not excluded from the industry. To help get tools in the hands of kids, BCHBA sponsored the “Build a Dog a Dream House” event for middle school students in March. Making people aware of what the industry has to offer at an early age can help secure its future.

“We sometimes see a re-entry when people were exposed to what we do early on in life, but decide to take a different road in life,” McAllister-Charles says. “However, they sometimes realize that they really do like the freedom of building, working with their hands, or being allowed to show off their creative talents.”

Workers install windows in a new home. Courtesy: Meacham Development Inc.

Workers install windows in a new home. Courtesy: Meacham Development Inc.

Others feeling the impact

Another homebuilding association feeling the pressure of finding skilled labor for trade jobs is the Valley Homebuilders Association, located in Appleton.

“It’s great to see the positive path the housing market is taking, however builders are now having problems keeping up with projects because there is such a shortage of skilled workers,” says Heidi Zich, executive vice president of the 440-member nonprofit trade association.

Zich says builders and contractors are in desperate need of people who can do framing, electrical, finish carpenters, painters, carpet installers and general laborers. Similar to the BCHBA, Zich says Fox Valley Home Builders are trying to work more with schools to show the industry as a viable career, offering competitive pay for experience and job dedication.

“We have a wonderful tool on our website where people can go and build their career,” Zich says. “There are so many opportunities for every skill and interest level, and our biggest goal is to make more people aware of what this industry has to offer.”

Farther down Interstate 41, construction workers are uniting to urge officials at Moraine Park Technical College to reinstate a building trades program for students. The construction worker one-year diploma program was suspended in January, even after protests from a number of contractors and businesses. Construction leaders say that unlike most career fields, construction always has openings; but not enough applicants.

Nick Van Handel, owner of Van Handel Heating and Cooling, says something needs to change in the way people associate trade jobs to career paths.

“I’m afraid that there are not many kids out there who want to get into manual labor fields. They would rather go into jobs that have an office setting, but what they don’t realize is that manual labor means much more now than it did years ago. People aren’t making minimum wage while at these jobs,” Van Handel says.

Commercial contractors feeling the strain

Homebuilding associations aren’t the only ones dealing with the labor shortage.

Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin, part of a national trade association for the commercial construction industry, says the shortage of skilled labor impacts the entire industry.

In a recent national poll, ABC Wisconsin found nearly 1.6 million new skilled workers will be needed between now and 2022.

“We need to get more people excited about construction because it’s not like it’s going away anytime soon,” says Elizabeth Roddy, recruitment and training coordinator for ABC Wisconsin. “It’s not like we can take the building you are in right now and ship it off to China and say, ‘Make one like this’. We need to get people excited here.”

One of the key challenges, Roddy says, is educating students and parents about the construction industry and what it offers when it’s time to consider career paths.

“Kids always talk about becoming a teacher, a doctor or a firefighter when they grow up, and they don’t necessarily talk about construction,” Roddy says. “It’s not that dirty job, or that grunt labor that everybody sometimes thinks about when they think of construction. When workers can take an empty field or an empty lot and make a building out of it, it’s truly amazing to think about what we as humans can create.”