Construction Workers Wanted

With Development On The Rise, Contractors Scramble To Find Help

Youth Not Choosing Field

Industry Leaders Blame Lack Of Early Recruitment, Training

April 20, 1997|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

The deep freeze on development seems a distant memory, with construction sites throughout the state bustling once more.

But finding workers to lay brick, fit pipes, saw wallboard, install sheet metal and wire buildings poses a dilemma for contractors: They can't fill jobs fast enough -- or at all.

Contractors have been forced to turn down jobs or work double shifts to meet deadlines. They've borrowed competitors' workers, hired temporary labor and sought help in other cities.

"It is a terrible problem, and it's going to get worse," said Ann Kurlander, co-owner with husband Marty of 25-year-old Kurlander Electric Inc., which needs at least three more full-time electricians and helpers. "I can't remember ever having this much difficulty.

"For whatever reason, it doesn't seem like the construction industry is attracting enough good young people to go into the trade," said Kurlander. "Just why that is, we haven't been able to figure out."

It's a familiar lament, coming with equal intensity from contractors here and elsewhere -- South Florida, central Ohio, Austin, Texas, Milwaukee and Spokane, Wash.

Contractors blame a decline in early recruitment and training, as society has come to value white-collar work over hard-hat jobs seen as physically demanding and dirty.

In part, the industry has never fully recovered from the labor drain of the last recession, when commercial building came to a near halt and construction unemployment rose to 17 percent. Between 1989 and 1992, the number of workers nationally dropped from 5.1 million to 4.4 million, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says. Many of the casualties were highly skilled and experienced tradespeople, electricians, carpenters, masons.

"We saw a lot of quality people leave the industry, where they got out of the construction business and went into the service sector, retail or manufacturing," said James Kee, president of the Baltimore chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors and vice president of Clark Construction Group. "These people didn't return."

Since then, a healthier economy has spurred demand for workers, as hospitals and schools expand and new homes and office parks sprout throughout the region. Last year, the industry employed 5.4 million nationwide.

But turnover is high; the industry must replace an average 240,000 workers each year, labor statistics show. Skilled workers, on average, have grown older, while fewer young people want to learn a trade.

Working with the crew

At his busiest, Ed Cluster, president of 20-year-old Ed Cluster Electrical Contractor Inc., has worked eight-hour shifts alongside his crew, squeezing in administrative work in the early morning and late evening at his Finksburg office.

"I've got people calling me every day begging me to bid work," said Cluster. "The past year and a half, I could get all the work I needed to keep 20 guys busy. But I couldn't get the people. We are losing people hand over fist to other industries."

A February survey by the National Center for Construction Education and Research showed that the severe shortage of craft workers throughout the country has not improved since June. More than 70 percent of contractors who hire HVAC technicians, plumbers, carpenters, sheet metal workers, electricians and masons need workers.

The shortage is being felt in both nonunionized and unionized companies, which used to provide most of the training and do most of the work but only handle about 20 percent of all jobs, said Herbert R. Northrup, professor emeritus of management at Wharton School of Business.

Today, many young people -- even those without college aspirations -- no longer consider construction an option.

"If you run an ad in the paper, you may get two phone calls for helpers," said Frank X. Avena, president of the drywall division of MacKenzie, O'Conor, Piper & Flynn Construction Corp. "Years ago, your phone would ring off the wall. Most parents these days want their children to go to college. They don't want them in construction."

Bad impressions

And the students' own impressions of construction: dirty, tedious, requiring no skills.

In a 1993 Jobs Rated Almanac survey of desirable career choices, construction worker ranked nearly last, just ahead of migrant farmer and fisherman.

"It's the perception based on what everyone sees driving down the street," said Kee. "They see a highway project and a guy pouring concrete. It looks like hard work, and it can be hard work. Nobody is going to say the physical aspect has been alleviated, but there's a bigger demand on intelligence and skills of the workers as well."

Technology and advances in equipment and materials have made life easier both in the field and on the administrative end. Some contractors have computers in trailers on job sites. And standardized training programs, such as apprenticeships run by the Associated Builders, allow trainees to transport skills across state lines.

Career path

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