Crisis in craftsmen: Construction activity is up again, but the industry faces another, more troubling dilemma

By: Payton Guion, staff writer//September 16, 2013//

Crisis in craftsmen: Construction activity is up again, but the industry faces another, more troubling dilemma

By: Payton Guion, staff writer//September 16, 2013//

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CHARLOTTE – During the Great Recession, construction projects dried up. Tradesmen – welders, roofers, crane operators – were being underutilized, so they went elsewhere looking for a paycheck.

The good news is that the local construction industry has found its feet and projects continue to pop up across the city. The bad news is that many of the tradesmen that left the industry haven’t returned.

No problem, though. If the veterans won’t return to construction, new blood will come in and fill those jobs. Problem solved, right?

Staffing firm Manpower has found skilled-labor positions to be the most difficult positions to fill, as tradesmen are on the decline. Photo by Nell Redmond
Staffing firm Manpower has found skilled-labor positions to be the most difficult positions to fill, as tradesmen are on the decline. Photo by Nell Redmond


Industry insiders now are rushing to determine how best to cope with a far more pressing pickle: young people largely aren’t interested in joining the trades and contractors are struggling to find skilled labor, a trend that could hinder future construction work.

In a report from the Associated General Contractors of America, 74 percent of the construction firms that responded to an association survey said they are having difficulty filling some craft-worker positions. More than half of the respondents also said they are having difficulty filling professional positions.

Bill Stricker, vice president of professional development with Carolinas AGC, the local branch of the AGC, said he’s concerned about an industry that isn’t replacing its aging workers.

“We’re not seeing the number of people choosing construction as a career or choosing to go into apprenticeship programs and developing their skills to become craftsmen,” he said. “The average age of craftsmen that are in the industry now continues to rise. I’ve seen numbers from late 40s to early 50s. They’re nearing retirement or being promoted into supervisory roles because of their age and experience.

“We don’t have the pool of people to pull from that we once did.”

Carolinas AGC doesn’t keep local figures on the skilled-labor shortage, or demand from contractors for those workers, but Stricker said the need here is the same as it is nationwide.

Contractors aren’t the only ones struggling to find skilled workers. Staffing firms, the companies that specialize in finding workers, can’t find them either.

Kim Schueneman, marketing sales executive in the Charlotte office of Manpower, a global staffing firm, said it’s become so difficult to find the tradesmen that construction companies need, Manpower has started moving away from that industry.

“Any skilled position, construction or skilled manufacturing, has been the No. 1 hardest to fill job locally here and the main reason is the unpredictability,” she said. “People just aren’t getting into that field anymore and those skills just aren’t getting taught.”

Opinion across the industry – from contractors to academics – as to why young people have lost interest in the trades comes down to two consistent factors: societal expectations and perception of the construction industry.

The majority of adolescents in today’s culture are raised with the expectation of going to college, getting a degree and working in a field that requires that degree. For tradesmen the process can be different. After high school, those looking to get into the trades get some form of technical training before starting an apprenticeship. They apprentice for a period of time, learning their trade, before becoming a journeyman.

While that was a popular career path in generations past, today’s high school graduate isn’t interested.

“I think some of it’s a societal-type thing,” said Bruce Gehrig, assistant chair and associate professor in the Department of Engineering Technology & Construction Management at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “All people hear is you gotta go to college, gotta go to college, gotta go to college. Gotta get a four year degree if you’re going to be successful.

“Society looks down on somebody who wants to go into a trade or craft.”

This isn’t to say that someone with a college education can’t go into construction or the trades. Several schools in the state – including Central Piedmont Community College and UNCC – offer training in the trades or in construction management. But this is where the poor perception of construction work plays a part.

“There is a stigma,” said Dave Clewley, director of human resources with Greensboro-based Starr Electric Co. “Construction workers are considered to be blue collar and people think it’s not a place that you make money.”

Gehrig said, “The word construction scares some people away because they think it’s all dirty, hard, outdoor labor. We have to overcome the misconception.”

To work through that misconception, both Stricker and Clewley say education is key. And, no, they’re not talking about a college education.

“The industry has to get the message out about what the opportunities in construction are,” Stricker said. “There are good careers and people can make a good living in the trades. All of us are trying to get that message out.”

Clewley said he often goes to high schools to talk to students about careers in the trades.

“The education system tries to steer people away from (this) very lucrative career field,” he said. “To them, college equals success and career advisors are in their ear. But once you get them in and they see what the work is and they get the paycheck, you have them.”

While the industry is trying to overcome the poor perception of the construction industry, the skilled laborers are only getting older. Clewley said the average age of a tradesman is 47.5 years old. And with no one waiting in the wings to replace the aging workforce, area construction could suffer.

Stricker said scheduling is an immediate problem. With smaller crews, contractors are having to work employees more hours in order to get the job done.

“That can result in all kinds of issues,” he said. “Tired workers are tired workers. It’s like truck drivers, there are specific rules how many hours they can drive for that specific reason. If you press those limits, sometimes there’s failure.”

Over the long haul, this lack of skilled labor could rein in construction activity as a whole.

“The shortage will have an impact on the amount of construction we can do industry-wide,” Gehrig said. “If you don’t have the people you need to do those jobs, it’s going to have an effect on the overall economy.”

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