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Contractors struggle to find skilled labor

Human Resources
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Construction sites across the United States are struggling to find skilled workers, causing construction delays and safety concerns, according to a panel of industry experts.

The panel kicked off the final day of the Associated Builders and Contractors of the Carolinas conference on Friday at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel and Suites Charleston – Historic District.

“Across the board, there is a genuine concern for where is that next generation of craft workers,” said Greg Sizemore, vice president of environment, health, safety and workforce development for the national Associated Builders and Contractors. “What are we doing to get to the next generation of craft workers?”

On the Gulf Coast, Sizemore said, there’s a lot of money from oil companies to lure skilled workers, but in “Middle America,” there’s not as much money and not as much of an industrial community, which makes it hard to compete.

“When you’re competing with these craft professionals that are paying, in some cases, six figures between their wages and their overtime ... we’re seeing some significant shortages right now,” said Steve Greene, vice president of the National Center for Construction Education and Research.

Greene also warned that the last of the baby boomers will retire in 2029, which will deplete the workforce unless young people can be brought into the field.

A short-term stopgap is the hiring of temporary workers who move from site to site, Greene said, but that brings its own challenges: More time needs to be spent training the temporary workers; temporary workers don’t have the same skills as trade workers; and contractors often don’t know the quality of work they’ll be able to get out of temporary employees.

“There’s a big difference between what you buy and what you get, and unfortunately you pay for that until you figure that out,” Sizemore said.

Ryan Wathen, senior vice president of construction operations at Rodgers Builders, a contractor based in Charlotte, said construction sites are feeling a loss of productivity — it now takes more people to manage the same project because of the lack of training and dearth of skilled trade workers.

Sizemore said the safety of the projects is also influenced, because more people have to be squeezed into tight spaces and more people are working extended hours.

“By stuffing more people into a space, you literally exacerbate the number of occurrences or opportunities for an individual to get hurt,” he said. “And you know those are the things that would devastate a project.”

The long-term solution, said Bill Caldwell, president and CEO of Greenville-based Waldrop Mechanical Services, should be the recruitment of young people and the return of technical skills into high schools across the country.

Part of the focus, Caldwell added, needs to be on convincing the parents and administrators who often discourage students from going into trades.

“We as an industry have got to do a better job bridging that gap,” he said. “We’ve got a tremendous image problem with society as it relates to our industry. ... Nobody thinks about the good things we do.”

Focus should also be on trade work as a career, not just a job, Caldwell said.

“If you can do something with your hands, you’re never going to go without, and I think that’s the story you’ve got to tell,” Wathen said.

Sizemore said the military can also be a place from which to recruit skilled workers.

“We’ve got to recognize the fact that there are leadership qualities coming from our nation’s military servicemen, and we’ve got to do a better job engaging them in our workforce,” Greene said.

Reach Patrick Hoff at 843-849-3144.

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