Construction companies face shortage of skilled workers

Tri-City construction companies must try harder than ever to recruit skilled workers.

Amos Construction recently stationed an employee holding a “now hiring” sign on a busy street in Kennewick.

“I’ve run radio ads, placed ads on Craigslist in three cities, done the signage, done logos, I’ve Facebook advertised, and I still can’t find enough employees,” said company owner Steve Amos.

Take a drive anywhere around the region and it’s apparent: new homes and businesses going up.

Though business is booming, constructions companies say job openings are hard to fill.

“Some companies have to pass on bids because they don’t have enough people,” said Joel Bouchey, regional coordinator for Inland Northwest Associated General Contractors. “The other part is the workforce in construction is aging.”

And those older workers are not being replaced with a younger workforce.

“Mainly, there is a lack of desire,” said George Booth of Booth and Sons Construction Inc. of Kennewick. “In (young people’s) minds, it’s no longer respectable to do this. Some of the guys I have, at the end of the day, they go home and clean up before they go to the grocery store because they’re afraid of being looked down on.”

So where are the younger workers?

Many have gone to college. “A large point is the fact public education has told everyone you need to go to college after high school,” said Booth, 36, who has been helping with the family business since age 5. “There is a push to value the white-collar worker over the blue-collar worker. So it’s looked down on. There are a few of us who are college educated and we’re happy to get our hands dirty or sweaty.”

Booth went to college after high school.

“I did the whole college thing. My parents bought into it. ‘You need to get an engineering degree,’ they told me,” he said. 

But Booth also liked the family business, and he decided to stick with that after school. 

“It’s good, respectable work. And it keeps me humble,” he said.

Brad Boler, a senior project manager for G2 Construction of Kennewick, said he has the same problem finding younger workers.

“It’s a combination of things,” Boler said. “Since it’s kind of hard to find good help, you have to hold on hard to them, so they don’t leave.”

That means paying a few dollars more an hour, he said. Or promoting them up the company ladder.

But Boler says that still might not be enough.

“Younger people find construction to be such a boring industry,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘It’s not for me.’ I find I have to go through 10 applicants to find two good workers. Young guys who know what they’re doing can shoot up the charts in the company.”

Booth agreed. “If guys are skilled enough, we’ll move them up the ladder,” he said. “I’m trying to find the guys who couldn’t afford college, that are young, maybe trying to settle down, build a family.”

Boler looks for the same demographic: the 26- to 28-year-old looking to settle down and establish a career.

Boler said he recently was talking to a longtime contractor about the problem.

“When I was younger, about 15 years ago, in the labor forces there were so many badasses,” he said. “Guys who could do everything. Now, there are just a few guys who are jacks of all trades.”

The labor shortage isn’t just a Tri-City problem. It’s statewide and nationwide.

According to a 2018 Associated General Contractors of America survey, 80 percent of contractors nationwide report difficulty finding qualified craft workers.

Eighty-three Washington state contractors took the survey, and 83 percent said they expected to hire additional or replacement hourly craft personnel in the next 12 months; 89 percent said they were having a hard time filling salaried and hourly craft positions; and 51 percent said they’re having a difficult time hiring project managers and supervisors compared to the previous year.

Many of those surveyed said they’ve had difficulty finding electricians, carpenters and installers.

Forty-one percent said they believe it will become harder to hire qualified personnel in the next year, with half of those surveyed saying the current crop of craft personnel are poorly trained or skilled.

Sixty-four percent said they’re losing people to other construction firms.

To that end, 58 percent said they’ve increased the base pay rate to try to fill those spots.

Here are some other state survey highlights:

• 49 percent have engaged with career-building programs through high schools, colleges or other career and technical education programs.

• 41 percent worked with unions.

• 52 percent initiated or increased in-house training.

• 39 percent said they offered overtime.

• 51 percent said projects have taken longer than anticipated and 48 percent said they have had to put higher prices into their bids or contracts because of the staffing challenges.

Boler said there are so many avenues to advertise for openings, his company uses just a few.

“You can’t get to them all,” he said.

Amos Construction recently stationed an employee holding a “now hiring” sign on a busy street in Kennewick to attract applicants. The labor shortage isn’t just a Tri-City problem. It’s statewide and nationwide. According to a 2018 Associated General Contractors of America survey, 80 percent of contractors nationwide report difficulty finding qualified craft workers. (Photo by Jeff Morrow)

Amos said he recently spent $3,500 a month in advertising.

“My staff spends time daily on this, about 30 hours a week,” he said.

In comparison, he said five years ago it may have been just two to three hours a week.

And even if you hire someone, that doesn’t mean they’ll show up, he said.

“I spend two hours interviewing them, paying them $20 to $25 an hour, go over the employee handbook,” said Amos, who said he has seen it all in his 20 years as an owner. “I have them sign the paperwork. And then they never show up the next morning.”

They’re money chasers, who flit from job to job to make a few bucks more an hour, he said. He’s also familiar with the baby dodgers, who owe back child support.

Amos completes required paperwork, which includes the worker’s Social Security number. A few weeks later, he might get a letter about the back child support, but that worker has already left.

Amos also has seen a tactic called tailgating.

“Some contractors will pay these guys in cash,” Amos said. “They’ll say, ‘You’ve worked 60 hours this week. Put down 30 hours on your time card and I’ll pay you 30 hours in cash.’ It’s not legal. I play by the books. I pay all of my taxes. These LLCs get away with murder. They need to change the laws.”

And then there are the poachers.

“There are contractors who go to jobs to steal people,” he said. “I’ve seen it. It’s not moral. There is no integrity there. But I do believe in karma.”

Staffing challenges also affect construction project timelines and their crews’ stability.

“A company might have five projects you’re working on at the same time,” Boler said. “Those are supposed to start at a certain time. Maybe you don’t have enough jobs right now, so you don’t need as many people. But maybe you land a job, and you’re going through permit hell. Some of the permits don’t come through in a timely matter, and that’s no one’s fault.”

Boler’s company is going through that right now. G2 Construction won the bid to build three STCU credit unions in the Tri-Cities.

“They were supposed to go six months, six months and six months,” he said. “We finished one in November, but we’re having permit issues. Now instead of 18 months to get all three done, it’s more like three in three years. All of these different factors come into place, and you have to be flexible.”

Young workers, he said, get impatient and move on.

Bouchey said there are many public works jobs to improve aging facilities, and the Tri-City construction industry is healthy.

“The Tri-Cities economy has looked excellent for a decade and it’s not slowing down,” he said. “This is not a bubble. It’s not going away. And we want them (the young workforce).”

Washington state’s construction industry is growing.

From March 2018 to March 2019, there has been a gain of 10,000 construction workers throughout this state; this ranks No. 15 in the nation.

At the same time, the state Department of Labor and Industries reports injuries are up.

There were 175 cases of cuts or lacerations among teen workers in 2018. There were another 150 cases of sprains and strains, and 85 more reported cases of bruises and contusions.

“All of our members are truly dedicated to safety,” Bouchey said.

Amos said he takes training seriously in his shop.

“We started an in-house apprenticeship program,” he said. “We’ve picked up some good guys doing this. There are some young guys who want to learn.”

Amos will put them into the field to work, then maybe the next week they’re in the office for training. The following week they’re back out on a project, returning the following week for more training. That goes on for a while.

“A lot of contractors won’t take the risk,” Amos said. “It’s really hard for a young person to get into a trade. And we focus hard on the safety factor (in the program).”

Bouchey said Inland Northwest Associated General Contractors also has apprenticeship programs. The organization also has started a website, whatwillyoubuild.org, which helps young people understand the construction industry and its benefits.

“And we’re getting into the school districts,” he said. “We’ve done safety training with the Pasco kids, juniors and seniors, to get them workforce ready. We’d like to see them put wood shop back into school.”

Bouchey’s group is talking to the Pasco School District to create a math course dedicated to applied mathematics for engineering.

“So we’re starting to move the needle,” he said. “We want to see a willingness to work hard, work a full day and put the cellphone away.”

And Amos, as frustrated as he is with the lack of candidates, believes things will come around again where people will want to work in the business.

“The skilled trades are an awesome place to be,” he said. “You can make $80,000 a year, get retirement, health insurance, dental benefits. All of that. Anybody who says there isn’t money in this industry doesn’t know the industry.”

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