Business & Economy

More evidence of the construction worker shortage

Rosslyn Hotel SRO
Rosslyn Hotel SRO
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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A new survey from the Associated General Contractors of America found that 70 percent of construction firms are having a hard time finding skilled workers like carpenters, bricklayers, electricians and plumbers.

More than 1,600 firms were surveyed across the country - 97 were from California. Most do public works, commercial, industrial and apartment construction (single-family home builders were not part of the survey). 

Seventy-five percent of the firms surveyed in the western part of the U.S. said they were struggling to fill construction positions, up from 71 percent in 2016. About 70 percent said they were still planning to grow their crews in the coming year to meet demand.

"In the short-term, fewer firms will be able to bid on construction projects if they are concerned they will not have enough workers to meet demand," said Stephen Sandherr, chief executive officer for the Associated General Contractors. "Over the long term, either construction firms will find a way to do more with fewer workers or public officials will take steps to encourage more people to pursue careers in construction."

The results come amid a wave of construction across the U.S., particularly in California. From July 2016 to July 2017, the state added nearly 50,000 construction jobs – 34,000 were in the Southern California region. The job market across all sectors has been so strong that a very small pool of skilled job seekers remain, said Ken Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors.

"It’s really a challenge when you have such low unemployment to find workers with experience," Simonson said. "Meanwhile more and more of the ones who do have the experience are hitting retirement age."

The contractors group said trade organizations and construction firms are investing more heavily in recruitment and outreach to find and train young workers, especially women and veterans. Fifty-five percent of the firms in the western U.S. said they increased hourly wages in an effort to retain and attract workers.

It's part of an attempt to reverse a trend that began in the 1990s, as more high school graduates enrolled in college, foregoing careers in the building trades. Compounding that shift, more than 2 million construction workers in the U.S. lost their jobs from 2006-2011 during the housing bust. Many construction workers switched careers for good. Simonson said the U.S. construction workforce is still 11 percent below the pre-recession peak.