Construction-related firms want to grow, but experienced people are hard to find
The construction industry has been going through some growing pains in recent years.
The workload has been steadily rising for many companies, big and small, from general contractors and homebuilders to electrical subcontractors and engineering firms that support construction projects. But the workforce has failed to keep pace — at least when it comes to many mid-level management positions and skilled labor jobs.
A recent study by the Associated General Contractors of America and Sage Construction and Real Estate found that 73 percent of construction firms in the U.S. plan to expand their payrolls this year to meet project demands, both for public and private work. However, many of those surveyed also expressed concerns about the availability of qualified workers.
Construction-related firms are having trouble now recruiting people to fill jobs as project estimators and managers in the office and crew leaders and site superintendents in the field. Skilled tradesmen to fill hands-on positions — from carpenters to concrete cement finishers and steel erectors — are always in short supply.
There are three major reasons for the lack of workers. The workforce is getting older; not enough young people are pursuing construction jobs out of high school; and many people in Generation X — the experienced group of people born between 1965 and 1980 — left the industry during the last recession to pursue other jobs.
“We’re already drawing from a much smaller pool,” said David Cross, president and COO of Silver Spring Township-based R.S. Mowery & Sons Inc., which does business as Mowery.
But the shortage of construction talent has been felt since before the recession, Cross added. The economic downturn raised awareness of an aging industry and, ultimately, “put an exclamation point” on the imbalance, he said.
“It was going to happen anyway, but (the recession) accelerated it a bit,” he said.
Fewer workers, fewer projects?
While the demand for workers may be good news for young people, who are fielding multiple job offers at higher starting salaries, it also means the industry is far from solving its workforce problem, which stems in part from its reputation.
“That’s the tough part,” said Tom Meagher, an executive vice president who hedas up the Allentown office of Blue Rock Construction. “The trades are not glamorous. It’s tough work and long hours and people don’t work 40 hours per week.”
Nonetheless, people can make good money, especially if they are skilled in a trade or they have experience running day-to-day operations on a large industrial site.
Blue Rock, based in New Jersey, manages industrial, manufacturing and retail construction projects from Maine to Virginia. Meagher said subcontractors across the company’s footprint are dealing with manpower issues.
Myrl Hersh, the owner of CV Services, a Cumberland County-based electrical contractor, said hiring personnel is a “never-ending battle” for him. While it’s normal for construction workers to move around to different companies every few years, he said, he can’t find enough young people willing to even take a chance on electrical trades.
“We talk to schools and we can’t get folks to apply for apprenticeships,” he said. “And we pay 100 percent.”
CV Services employs 40 to 50 people at any given time. About half of those positions are subcontractors.
Hersh said he would like to add to that total because his company is fielding job requests for everything from warehouses and senior-living facilities to private college projects. But he might have to turn down work if he can’t find more electricians.
Marc Kurowski, principal at Swatara Township-based K&W Engineers and Consultants, a site design firm, remains optimistic he will find the civil engineers, landscape architects and land surveyors he needs to keep up with heavy commercial, industrial and institutional work the firm is being asked to take on.
“We were around 11 full-time at the end of last year,” Kurowski said. “Right now we’re targeting 16 as soon as we can get people.”
But he also compared the employment landscape right now to the Wild West. Most firms try not to poach from local competitors, but it inevitably happens when work volumes pick up or jobs require extensive expertise.
How long demand will remain high is the next logical question, Kurowski said. He said his company’s backlog was strong to start the year, but that it’s hard to say why so many building projects have been advancing. It’s likely that the uncertainty attached to last year’s presidential election, whether Donald Trump won or not, has freed up some investors to move forward with construction.
Mark Jones, executive vice president at Kimmel & Associates, a North Carolinabased specialty executive recruitment firm that covers North America, said he doesn’t see much changing in terms of project demand as long as the economy continues to do well.
His company is busy trying to fill a wide range of mid-level and senior management positions for construction firms. “There is a big gap between people in their early 40s and early- to mid-50s,” he said. “There is not much you can do about that. As people march closer to retirement, the ones in their 30s will have to step up.”
In the interim, Mowery and other companies are looking to add new tiers of training and employment opportunities to appeal to younger people. Companies also need to consider modifying benefits and other company policies, including offering more flexible work hours and more frequent employee reviews, to keep employees engaged, he said.
“We have little choice but to focus on folks sooner,” Cross said. “The company we were yesterday is not the company that 20- and 25-year-olds want to work with. It’s about realigning the culture.”
Incentives and training
To combat the shortage of mid-level workers, more companies are providing incentives, such as project completion bonuses, to some older workers so they don’t retire. Some contractors are even hiring retired superintendents, for example, just to oversee a specific job because of their experience.
Companies also are trying to hire as many college graduates as possible that they can train and bring quickly up to speed.
In many cases, a younger company workforce will mean promoting people at an earlier age to positions historically filled by older employees. Companies also have to pay more to initially attract young talent as multiple companies want the same people, or they have to raise offers to recruit people away from competitors.
“The demand for mid-level talent does put a salary premium on qualified workers,” said Amber Schnader, a project manager at Warfel Construction in East Hempfield Township, Lancaster County. “With the need for employers to invest in training and employee engagement to satisfy the millennial generation, costs are added to the company overhead.”
Warfel, a general contractor with 185 employees and a long history in Central Pennsylvania, hired 33 people last year. But the need to hire more people, especially young people that the company can develop over time, remains, Schnader said. More than 40 percent of Warfel’s workforce is now made up of millennials, or those born between about 1981 and 1997.
“This has been a source of energy and vibrancy for our company,” Schnader said of the youth movement. “We are focused on mentoring and career development for all of our employees, and this allows younger workers to understand career potential and be open to new opportunities.”
Penn College of Technology in Williamsport has seen steady growth in recent years in the number of employers attending its career fairs, specifically those recruiting students from the School of Construction and Design Technologies, or CDT.
- Spring 2014: 73 employers with 771 full-time positions available
- Fall 2014: 76 employers with 578 full-time positions available
- Spring 2015: 77 employers with 514 full-time positions available
- Fall 2015: 86 employers with 657 full-time positions available
- Spring 2016: 88 employers with 500 full-time positions available
- Fall 2016: 107 employers with 885 full-time positions available.
Many of those employers also have been scaling up on internship positions, according to Penn Tech data. In spring 2014, employers offered 270 internships at CDT career fairs. The number had doubled by fall 2016.
The majority of Penn Tech graduates, according to recent graduate surveys, find employment in Pennsylvania. Maryland and New Jersey also have been popular landing spots for recent grads.
And nearly 60 percent of graduates over the last five years have said they were hired before graduating from Penn Tech.
Indeed, many construction firms have been developing internal education programs, or boosting their relationship with trade groups such as the Associated Builders and Contractors, which are expanding training courses, to grow their pipeline of young talent and fill positions. At the request of member companies, ABC Keystone, the midstate chapter of the national group, recently added courses to develop construction crew leaders and superintendents.
While the number of local apprentices is rising at ABC, the numbers are not enough to address immediate needs. Steady apprenticeship growth is a long-term solution, officials said.
A new recruit
In recent years, Penn College of Technology in Williamsport has seen construction recruitment efforts pick up. And construction-related firms are no longer going after graduating seniors only. They also are talking to juniors - and sometimes offering them jobs.
Student Patrick Kelly has a year left at Penn Tech and he’s already lined up a management job in residential construction in West Virginia.
The 21-year-old southwestern Pennsylvania native has fielded multiple job offers from homebuilders as well as hospitality companies and specialty contractors in need of project managers. A concrete company even asked him to drop out of college this year to become a foreman.
But Kelly, who comes from a family of carpenters, wants to wait and finish his bachelor’s degree, hoping to set himself up for greater opportunities in the future. His dream is to one day own his own homebuilding company.
Based on recent inquiries and the growing number of companies attending the college’s job fairs with full-time job openings, Kelly suspects demand is only going to increase as he and his classmates approach graduation. Plus, there is growing optimism in the construction industry about President Trump’s plan to significantly boost infrastructure spending and what that could mean for other long-term building projects.
About 91 percent of the 72 companies surveyed in early 2017 for the CPBJ Construction Activity Index believe Trump will keep his infrastructure promises. The quarterly index is a measure of conditions and expectations in Central Pennsylvania’s construction industry.
Dan Border, a field manager for EGStoltzfus, also expects recruitment to increase.
The 24-year-old New Cumberland resident said he had multiple job offers when he was graduating from Penn Tech in 2014.
“It’s picking up more and more,” he said. “In 2014, we were still coming out of a recession.”
Border, a Massachusetts native, got his start at Keystone Custom Homes in Lancaster County. He moved to EGStoltzfus in early 2016 and he now is managing construction of two townhome communities in Palmyra.
He and others see similar opportunities for young people in Pennsylvania.
“With the current student population, we can’t meet all of the
needs of those we get calls from,” said Marc Bridgens, dean of the School of Construction and Design Technologies at Penn Tech. “We get quite a few a week about hiring.”
His program graduates about 200 students each year, a number he would happily grow if he could boost enrollment.
But many parents still want their children to steer clear of what are perceived as dirty blue-collar jobs in construction. That’s part of the reason that the average apprentice is about 28 years old. Some apprentices in ABC’s program are college graduates who struggled to find jobs in their field, but they liked working with their hands and decided to get into construction.
ABC is hoping more young people will try construction earlier, get work experience and learn a skill that might open up other doors. Changing the mindset that everyone needs to go to a liberal arts college is a long-term challenge for the construction industry.
“One of biggest things is starting at a younger age to share the opportunities that are available,” Bridgens said. “Over many years, with all of the jobs that were filled by the baby boomer age, there may not have been opportunities out there. Now we’re seeing opportunities that are vastly available.”