Business

Builders fear their shortage of workers is more than a symptom of a strong economy

S.T. Wooten Corp. needs laborers and heavy equipment operators to work on the widening of Interstate 40 south of Raleigh. The company says the jobs pay competitive wages and come with a full array of benefits, including paid holidays, life, health and dental insurance and a 401(k).

But if recent history is any guide, the company will struggle to find qualified candidates for those jobs. With unemployment at its lowest point in 50 years, companies that build things — from single-family houses to eight-lane highways — say they’re having trouble attracting and keeping good workers.

“We just don’t have people walking in the door, looking to fill out applications, like we did in the past,” says Amzie Hoffner, vice president of human relations for S.T. Wooten, which is based in Wilson.

Unlike other industries, those involved in construction say their labor shortages are only partly explained by the strong economy. They say a more fundamental shift toward four-year colleges and high-tech has meant fewer young people seeking careers in construction, even in more skilled fields such as electrical and plumbing. Many consider construction a job you do if you can’t get something better.

There’s also a sense that fewer people are willing to put up with the demands of jobs that involve physical labor out in the elements. The listings for the I-40 jobs include a caveat found with many of the openings advertised on S.T. Wooten’s website: “Position requires the ability to continuously work around any or all of the following: noise, dust, heat, cold, oil and heavy equipment.”

“More people want to be in air conditioning,” Hoffner said. “Fewer and fewer people are interested in working in a job that can be extremely hot and demanding in the summer and extremely cold and demanding in the winter.”

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Contractors are having a hard time finding qualified workers, especially for road construction and other outdoor positions. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

A shortage of workers is one of the biggest threats to the success of the construction industry, according to Associated General Contractors of America, which represents more than 26,000 construction companies and suppliers.

In the AGCA’s annual workforce survey this summer, 91% of North Carolina contractors reported “having a hard time filling some or all positions.” Majorities reported difficulty hiring for a wide range of jobs, including pipelayers, laborers, carpenters, electricians, equipment operators and concrete and sheet-metal workers.

Nearly 90% said they had increased base pay to entice and keep workers, and about two-thirds said they were passing those costs on to customers in the form of higher prices. Nearly half said that projects had taken longer than anticipated because of staffing shortages.

“We’re paying more money for less qualified laborers, and it’s taking longer to build the houses,” said Wayne Holt, owner of Reward Builders, which builds about a dozen custom homes a year in the Triangle. Holt says a house that once took six months to build now takes seven or eight.

Like many builders, Holt hires subcontractors to complete various phases of a job, and he competes with other builders. One of two framing crews he worked with a year ago has dissolved because it couldn’t keep its workers from being hired away — “poached,” as Holt puts it.

“Basically what’s happening, you’ll have your employees and you’re doing fine and someone will come along and offer them 50 cents or a dollar more an hour and they go work for them,” he said.

The AGCA has a list of policy ideas for the federal government that it says could help with the labor shortage. They include creating a visa program to let employers hire more foreign-born workers; allowing construction students at community colleges to qualify for federal Pell grants; and making it easier for companies to establish apprenticeships and other training programs.

In North Carolina, there’s also a push to improve the industry’s image among young people. With an apprenticeship, classes at a community college or even on-the-job training, a high school graduate can embark on a career that pays decent wages without borrowing money for a four-year degree, says Betsy Bailey, director of the Carolina AGC’s building division.

“You can start off at $30,000, $40,000,” Bailey said. “There’s a lot of upward mobility; there’s a lot of variety. And you don’t need to go into a lot of debt. We’ve got to do a better job of getting that message out.”

Polishing construction’s image

Bailey’s group helped persuade the General Assembly to give $200,000 to the state community college system to help “rebrand” construction as a career choice and draw attention to programs at all 58 community colleges that train skilled tradespeople, such as carpenters, plumbers, electricians and welders.

Enrollment in these programs has been flat at best in recent years, says Matt Meyer, associate vice president for business engagement at the community college system. Overall community college enrollment always dips when the economy is good, Meyer said, but image problems facing fields such as construction, manufacturing and public safety are a persistent challenge.

“Parents still think that if you’re kid goes to community college, they’ve failed,” he said. “Which is totally wrong.”

The community college system has overhauled its promotional materials to portray construction as an opportunity for women and people of color, Meyer said, and not just “big white guys wearing a helmet.” It also helped update the Carolina AGC website buildyourcareer.us, which uses a quiz and suggested career pathways to help people “Find the construction career that’s right for you!”

The North Carolina effort is similar to a campaign called Generation T launched this spring by the Lowe’s home improvement company, which says it hopes to help fill the gap in skilled trades that will leave an estimated 3 million jobs open by 2028. The campaign’s website, www.wearegenerationt.com, has information about jobs and apprenticeships and opens with an edgy, one-minute video that emphasizes technology and creativity in construction trades.

“We are the rightful journeymen, the waymakers. When the banks crash and the stocks fall, we set the bearings straight,” the young narrator says, over images of people at work. “With the vision that keeps the lights on, we build a better world out of thin air.”

Mike Mitchell, director of skilled trades at Lowe’s who is leading Generation T, says surveys with high school students and their parents found they generally consider construction trades both uninspiring and a closed community that’s hard to penetrate.

“They felt like it was something that didn’t fit their identity going forward,” Mitchell said. “And they simply didn’t know where to start. This industry has been incredibly informal, not very diverse and has been male dominated.”

Seeking diversity

Maryah Smith-Overman has been trying to change that perception. She’s director of skilled trades at Durham Technical Community College and seeks out women and people of color to teach or speak to classes. Of nine instructors, three are women or people of color, up from zero when she arrived three years ago.

“People want to see themselves in the construction field,” Smith-Overman said. “As a woman, if I’m interested in taking a class, it would be great to see a woman teaching and know she’s been in the field. It creates an open, welcoming environment.”

Durham Tech works closely with contractors in the area to provide the training their employees need. The dozen or so students in Robert Brewer’s plumbing lab, which meets one evening a week this fall, include workers at the Durham Housing Authority who are learning new skills and three employees of Carrboro Plumbing.

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Jason Bethea listens to the instructor of a plumbing class, Robert Brewer, at Durham Technical Community College on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2019, in Durham, NC. Casey Toth ctoth@newsobserver.com

Jason Bethea of Chapel Hill has worked for Carrboro Plumbing for three years, helping with service hookups and new construction. His title is “helper,” he said, but “I call myself an apprentice.”

Bethea was growing tired of stocking shelves at Food Lion when his brother-in-law told him about a chance to work at Carrboro Plumbing. The Durham Tech class is a step toward certification and eventually owning his own business someday, he says.

Plumbing can be hard and dirty, which is why Bethea figures more people don’t pursue it.

“But it pays off after you see your work,” he said. “It puts joy in my mind when I leave someone’s home and the job is done right.”

Reaching high school students

Bethea’s instructor, Brewer, owns Axiom Plumbing in Elon and has experienced the difficulty finding good workers. He says he’s wasted energy and time training people who seem enthusiastic until they get out in the field and find plumbing is not easy work.

“They think they’re going to make $15 to $20 an hour by doing nothing, by handing someone a wrench or running to the truck to get some materials,” Brewer said. “It just seems like a lot of people are just looking for an easier, softer way.”

Brewer loves plumbing, though, and says for those who are willing to work the trade is satisfying and pays well. “You can take care of your family, that’s for sure,” he said.

He says the construction industry needs to reach teens sooner and show them there’s an alternative to a four-year college.

“We need to go into the high schools,” he said. “Shoot, maybe even the middle schools. Put it on their minds a lot sooner.”

In fact, says Durham Tech’s Smith-Overman, the trend has gone the other way in recent decades, as high schools eliminate traditional shop classes because of budget cuts or lack of interest. The labor shortage is stoking interest in finding new ways to reach high school kids, she says.

Durham Tech and Durham Public Schools have created a summer construction camp that exposes high school students to different trades and lets them hear from employers. And this year, the two institutions launched the WayMakers Collaborative, a program based at Southern School of Energy and Sustainability that introduces students to construction trades through specialized coursework, labs, internships and field work.

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Robert Brewer, right, teaches students in his plumbing class at Durham Technical Community College on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2019, in Durham, NC. Casey Toth ctoth@newsobserver.com

The two-year program is open to students from throughout the school system and was created with a $450,000 grant from the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. Ondrea Austin, the lead workforce development coordinator for the school system, says contractors have been encouraging the schools to make it easier for students to explore construction trades and that more than 50 companies are involved in WayMakers.

Austin says the program is general enough that it could appeal to a wide range of students, from those interested in getting a job right out of high school to those that plan to get advanced degrees in engineering, architecture or management.

“We have one young woman who is interested in interior design,” she said. “She was just saying how great it is that as a designer she’s going to understand the hands-on implications of that design.”

Immigration’s role

The construction industry is seeking more workers in the face of demographic challenges that confront all employers. As the U.S. population ages, the size of the labor force is barely growing, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bureau projects the country’s workforce will grow about 0.5% a year over the next decade, down from an average of 2.6% annually in the 1970s.

Immigration has helped the workforce expand in recent decades; the number of Latino immigrants working in the U.S. nearly tripled between 1988 and 2016, to 26.8 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nationally, 25% of construction jobs are held by immigrants, said NAGC’s Bailey. In some professions, such as roofing and drywall, the numbers are much higher.

That’s why many in the industry say the solution to the labor shortage has to include some sort of policy change that allows more immigrants to work. Holt, the home builder, says Latino workers who went home during the recession are needed back now but are feeling discouraged by policies under the Trump administration that make it harder to get work visas.

“Work visas,” Holt said, when asked what would help alleviate the shortage. “I don’t know any other way.”

But others say the reliance on immigrants only underscores why the industry needs to do more to develop a stronger workforce at home. Jeff Logsdon, owner of Hearthstone Luxury Homes and president of the Home Builders Association of Raleigh-Wake County, says he doesn’t hear his colleagues clamoring for changes in immigration policy.

“It isn’t so much that we need immigration to solve it,” Logsdon said. “We need our local students to understand the opportunity in this industry.”

For Hoffner, the human resources director at S.T. Wooten, that means finding more people like Devonte Corum, a laborer who is helping build two new bridges over a creek that cut U.S. 421 in two near Wilmington after Hurricane Florence last year.

After graduating from high school in 2016, Corum cut turkeys for Butterball, until he developed arthritis in his hand, then went to work for an air filter manufacturer. For months he drove past the S.T. Wooten concrete plant in Goldsboro on his way to work before he got up the courage to apply.

“Concrete seemed more interesting than stacking air filters all day,” he said.

Guiding the pile driver and setting girders is hard work, harder than cutting turkeys, Corum said. But he says he feels like he’s found a career and wants to be a “boss” one day or a crane operator.

“I love it,” he said. “It’s a pretty great experience.”

Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.
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