Construction employers struggling to find qualified workers

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construction labor - picture courtesy of Chicago Tribune

NORTHWEST, Ind. — A job that pays up to $100,000 a year with benefits and requires no college debt sounds like an ideal opportunity, right?

Apparently for many people locally and nationally, not if the job is in the construction industry.

The Associated General Contractors of America said recently that 70 percent of more than 1,600 construction firms responding to a survey report having a difficult time filling the hourly craft positions that represent the bulk of their workforce.

Walsh & Kelly, the Northwest Indiana road paving firm, is among those companies.

As director and principal of the Porter County Career & Technical Center in Valparaiso, Jon Groth also sees the void.

“We’re getting daily, weekly calls from construction companies looking to hire. It’s as close to full employment in the area as I’ve seen,” Groth said, meaning he won’t be able to fulfill many of the calls.

Those associated with the industry give myriad reasons why construction isn’t the career of choice for a lot of people and say many firms are changing the way they recruit, operate and compensate employees in an effort to shore up their worker numbers.

“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 of the Associated General Contractors.

And long-term, Sandherr said construction firms could find a way to do more with fewer workers.

The perceived causes

Swan blames the shortage on several factors: retiring Baby Boomers; the fact that Baby Boomers aren’t encouraging their children to enter the construction field, and that Millennials aren’t drawn to the jobs.

“These are high-paying jobs with lots of benefits, but Millennials gravitate toward more glamorous jobs in the computer industry where they can sit behind a desk, not be out in the hot or cold conditions,” Swan said.

Groth said students at the career center, which serves 10 high schools in Northwest Indiana, are more drawn to the health, law enforcement, computer and culinary fields than construction.

Out of 30 center courses, three are in construction and Groth said there are about 120 students enrolled in them, putting them at about capacity. Still, while the center is expanding, he doesn’t believe the construction portion will grow with it.

“I have not seen that demand from students,” Groth said.

The home construction field is facing the same problem, according to Vicky Gadd, executive officer of the Homebuilders Association of Northwest Indiana. The group represents more than 275 members in various fields related to home construction and remodeling.

“Young people aren’t thinking about the trades; not even middle-aged people going from one job to another are considering them,” Gadd said

School systems are contributing to the problem, some say, noting that many educators and administrators push high school graduates to go on to college.

Randy Palmateer, business manager with Northwest Indiana Building and Construction Trades Council, said some school districts in the region work with the building trades, while others are not as receptive. One school district in Lake County, in particular, won’t even invite the organization to talk to students on vocation days, he said.

“The work is hard, absolutely. You will be outside in the winter 90 percent of the time and you will be outside in the summer 90 percent of the time,” he said.

“But the great thing about the construction industry is there is always room to move up. You could become an estimator, a union officer or a project manager,” said Palmateer, who started as a union electrician.


Associations, unions and employers are taking steps to encourage more people to think about and enter into the trades.

The report by the national contractors’ association said 79 percent of the firms responding to its survey are making special efforts to recruit veterans, 70 percent to recruit women and 64 percent to recruit minorities.

Half of the firms have increased pay; 20 percent improved benefits, and 24 percent are providing bonuses and incentives.

Gadd said the Indiana Homebuilders Association and the local chapters are hoping to unveil a program in the near future that will provide information about the unions to encourage people to enroll in their trade classes.

Palmateer said the building trades council is working with Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott, Jr. to put some of their residents to work through a union pre-apprenticeship program.

He said the Helmets to Hard Hats program helps veterans enter the trades. And, “We’re dedicated to putting women to work, too.”

Groth said companies may be overlooking some prime candidates — 18-year-old graduates.

“I’d love to get into a union apprenticeship program, but it can be difficult,” Groth said. “They’re competing against 30-year olds.”

He suggested that 18-year olds love overtime, are energetic and can solve a staffing need for the long-term.

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