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Skilled help wanted: Construction companies, county deal with worker shortages

constructionThe economic recovery of the last few years has enabled a construction boom around Charlotte, but both contractors and the county department that inspects their projects are finding some qualified workers hard to come by.

Under the Mecklenburg County budget that went into effect July 1, the Land Use and Environmental Services Agency (LUESA) received funding for 18 additional code enforcement inspection positions to keep up with the surge in construction projects.

However, after two rounds of advertising the positions around the state, only half a dozen qualified inspectors were found. Those hires, minus some retirements, leave the department back at 18 unfilled positions, said Ebenezer Gujjarlapudi, LUESA director.

The Associated General Contractors of America (AGCA) for months has been sounding the alarm about the difficulty its members are having finding qualified workers, and on Oct. 22 held a media call to release new data “showing the severity of (the) construction worker shortage nationwide.” The organization is urging public officials and educational institutions to step in to create policies and programs to help alleviate the problem.

“Now that the work has started to come back, the companies are just having trouble finding people to put on their payrolls to meet the demands of the work,” said Bill Stricker, director of workforce development for the Carolinas AGC.

According to the AGCA survey of North Carolina firms, only 4 percent of construction firms said they were not having difficulty filling professional and skilled craft worker positions. Survey participants said the hardest professional position to fill has been project managers and supervisors, which 30 percent of companies said they found to be true, followed by engineers at 25 percent.

All of the companies responding that they were having trouble filling craft worker positions said that was true for electricians, painters, pipefitters and welders, and plumbers.

Sixty-eight percent said they expect to continue having difficulty filling professional positions, and 93 percent said the same for craft positions.

Fifty-seven percent said they have recruited workers from outside the area.

“We are dealing with the same challenges they are,” said Gujjarlapuda. “Both of us are competing for the same pool. If they can’t find them, then we can’t either.”

The county’s next step will be to advertise nationally for the positions. Gujjarlapuda said qualifications include at least a high school diploma or equivalency, some construction experience, and the aptitude to pass a state certification test in at least one inspection area, such as electrical, mechanical, fire safety and building.

Filling those positions would bring the number of inspectors to 102 from 84. The number fluctuates based on building activity, and Gujjarlapuda said there were more than 102 inspectors pre-recession.

Stricker said the reason for the shortage includes the loss of qualified workers to other professions during the recession and the push by high schools and parents for students to go to college instead of entering trades.

“The average age is above 50 years old now; they’re aging out, retiring,” said Stricker. “You take all of those factors and put them together and it creates a serious issue for contractors in finding skilled laborers.”

“As an industry, we haven’t done very well in the last 10, 15 years to promote ourselves and educate people as to what the opportunities for employment in construction are,” he said. “People have an image of hard work; we are a much different industry than that. Are there still people who dig ditches? Yes, there are. But the jobs are more in high tech; the industry has changed drastically.”

He said his organization is working with technical schools such as Central Piedmont Community College in developing accredited programs; promoting the job opportunities available in construction; and working with the Legislature to provide funding for job training and recruitment.

The state of Michigan, citing the labor gap, recently approved spending $50 million to help community colleges buy equipment to train students to work in skilled trades.

“It’s not something that we’re going to turn around overnight,” Stricker said.

Meanwhile, Gujjarlapuda said the county  handles between 1,000 and 1,200 inspections each day, and that inspectors are working evenings and weekends to complete the work in a reasonable time. To fill in gaps, some retirees have returned to work part time, and the county has reached out to nearby communities for help with overtime work.

He said the department’s response time to calls for inspections is averaging less than two days, with the longest wait being for electrical inspections, which can take up to three days.

Several contractors and subcontractors contacted by The Mecklenburg Times declined to comment or did not return calls. One who did not wish to be quoted said his company was not seeing inspection delays.

Gujjarlapuda said contractors can also opt for a premium service in which a third-party inspector from the private sector is used, at an extra hourly cost of between $120 and $140.

“Our guys are doing a great job trying to cover as many as possible,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a challenge because people might not be there,” he said, or might not be ready when they say they are.

His advice for construction supervisors is to call in advance to schedule an inspection.

“We’re trying to communicate (to them to) let us know ahead of time,” he said. “You guys know what your schedule looks like. Please let us know two, three days in advance.”

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