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Construction Trades Struggle to Draw Next Gen Workers
 
Published Tuesday, July 25, 2017
by RAY CARBONE

Like many NH industries, the Granite State’s commercial construction field is on the rise. But a dearth of skilled workers could slow its growth.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported in March that there were 27,600 people working in NH’s construction industry, a jump of 6.3 percent over the previous year. Data from the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) shows NH has the fifth fastest rate of construction job growth in the nation.

And a report from Associated Builders and Contractors in May showed the nonresidential sector led the construction industry in job growth, adding 3,200 net new jobs nationally in April after adding 8,500 net jobs in March. By contrast, the residential sector added 900 net jobs in April.

Yet three quarters of NH construction companies polled by AGC say they are having difficulty filling hourly craft positions like carpenters, plumbers and electricians. And half have trouble finding workers for office and field jobs.

The NH sample from the AGC poll is small, but the results were similar to those recorded in regional and national polls. Nationally, nearly 70 percent of construction companies complained about filling hourly craft positions, while the figure dropped to 57 percent in the Northeast. Nearly half of all companies reported similar problems with office and field positions.

“Work is getting done, but it’s tougher to find good employees," says Ken Holmes, president of North Branch Construction in Concord. He says this causes projects to take longer to complete than usual.

Few New Workers
Some of the challenge is related to a long-held view that construction jobs are not as glamorous, prestigious or lucrative as white-collar positions, says Jennifer Landon, director of employee and workforce development for the NH/Vermont chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors. “The mindset is that the skilled trades are not sexy; that you have to get your hands dirty.”

Attracting young people to construction is particularly challenging, says Holmes. “They see the excitement of high technology, computer-related stuff, the biotech stuff,” he says. “And construction is still hard work.”

Tim Long, president of Meridian Construction Corporation in Gilford, says the current generation didn’t necessarily grow up doing activities that would naturally lead them to the industry. “There’s a good part of this generation [that] has done a lot of indoor games, watched TV, that kind of thing,” he says. “They weren’t part of that whole idea of, ‘Let’s go outside and build a treehouse,’ or ‘Let’s build a fort,’ or something like that.”

Many industry insiders also point to the lack of emphasis on vocational training or Career Technical Education (CTE). “For a long time, everyone was pushing the idea that the goal was to get through high school and go to a four-year college and get a degree,” Holmes says. “There’s a lot fewer [CTE] programs now, so there’s a lot less people going into the trades.”

Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the national AGC, agrees. “Over the last 40 years, we’ve essentially dismantled a very robust vocational education program,” he says. “So, not only are we not teaching those skills, but we’ve been signaling that construction isn’t a viable career option. And we’re signaling that we don’t value construction.”

Fighting For Talent
Just like other industries facing worker shortages, NH construction firms are raising wages and adding benefits to lure new employees. AGC’s NH poll showed that roughly 75 percent of NH firms increased salaries and/or benefits in the last few years, and the other 25 percent are considering similar moves.

Generally, construction jobs offer above-average starting pay, and the average hourly rate in NH is about $22. Though some companies are going even higher. “We’re offering up a lot more benefits and better pay, hoping to attract skilled workers for other companies,” says Mike Dion, president of Metro Walls Inc. in Manchester. “And that’s making everybody’s company better. They want to attract more people and better people.”

“It used to be that there were a lot of fly-by-night operations in this business,” he notes. “Now, people are not going to go to work for people like that.”

Skilled workers already in the marketplace are seeing regular salary increases, says Long. “A lot of guys in the trades, they’re seeing 10 percent pay increases, year after year.”

The industry is partnering with other trade industries, such as hospitality and auto service, to encourage a revival of CTE in public schools. Mark Holden, president of the NH/VT chapter of Associated Builders, says the trade organization has been meeting with state legislators to advocate for stronger infrastructure for CTE programs. “Right now, if kids are interested in any of the trades, you can’t even get in the CTE unless you’re a high school junior or senior,” he explains. “That doesn’t give you any time to develop those skills. So, we’re trying to get it down one year [to sophomore level].”

At the national level, the AGC is looking for more money and flexibility for CTE, says Turmail. Under current federal law, a school district receives funding from the Perkins Act for programs only if it offers a range of options, even if some skills are not needed in the local economy. A bill that would have reformed the act to allow more options for local administrators failed last year, but AGC officials are hopeful a new proposal will pass in this Congress that will allow communities more flexibility about which skills to focus on.

But the most important response to the lack of workers may be addressing perceptions people have about construction work, say some industry insiders.

One misconception is that construction is limited, low-tech work. “Some of the actual work is very similar to what it was before,” says Turmail. “But you see a lot more technology, even on construction sites. You’re not looking at blueprints anymore. Now you’re using GPS or some kind of screen. On the job site, you’re as likely to be holding an iPad as a hammer or saw. One day you could be in khakis and button-down shirt, the next in jeans and steel-tipped boots.”

Addressing those perceptions needs to start in schools. “I wish more school counselors would look at a kid and say, ‘You’ve got great attention to detail, you’re independent and you’ve got this artistic side. Why don’t you think about being a painter or a drywall installer or  something [else within the construction industry]?’” says Landon.


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