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Labor Pains


Shifts in perception may help swell the ranks of the construction industry, where skilled workers are an endangered species, but community presence, engagement and a push to change the way kids learn could be the foundation on which a new improved workforce is built.

Recruiting quality talent into the workforce has always been something of a headache, says Doug McMurry, executive vice president of AGC’s San Antonio Chapter and a 20-year association veteran. These days, “it’s a full-blown migraine.”

And the Lone Star State is not the only place feeling the effects of the construction industry’s ever-evaporating talent pool. A recent nationwide survey conducted by AGC of America found that while most of the membership is quite optimistic about where things are headed in 2014 and beyond, workforce issues are the one cloud in an otherwise bright blue sky.

“It’s driven in part by demographics,” says McMurry. “Older workers are retiring; newer, younger ones are not entering the industry. The trend was anticipated but sadly we did not invest in programs during the recession – folks simply didn’t have the resources.” Now that work is picking up, however, the challenges of finding qualified tradesmen and women to fill those boots is daunting.

AGC, in conjunction with chapters working on the state and local level, is making in-roads with education, high school, vocational, college-level and other programs designed not only to attract and  educate those already interested in construction careers, but spark that interest in places where it may not have developed. The national association recently released “Preparing the Next Generation of Skilled Construction Workers: A Workforce Development Plan for the 21st Century,” which outlines a series of measures that federal, state and local officials should adopt to expand secondary-school career and technical education and post-secondary training opportunities so more people can enter into a growing number of high-paying jobs.

Many industry pros believe we should go even deeper, continuing to change the perceptions about what a construction career entails, but also prevailing attitudes about education that prevent many families from encouraging what can be a vocation in which their kids not only build meaningful things, but careers that are meaningful.

Where did all the workers go? There is both consensus and new ideas about how we got here. No one disputes that the recession played a part. Jobs dried up. Workers left. End of story. Also departing are construction veterans – specialty tradesmen who’ve spent their lives nation-building and are ready for retirement. Michael Kenig, vice chairman at Atlanta’s Holder Construction Company, a member of multiple AGC chapters, thinks the discussion has been done to death.

“We’re all essentially saying the same thing,” he says, “and frankly – the truth is that much of it has nothing to do with the shortage today. We’re inheriting systemic problems that have been around for a very long time, but we’ve done nothing about.”

He’s talking about education.

“Over the last 30 or so years, our country has become almost exclusively college preparatory,” says Kenig. “And a lot of people say we have to get back to being ‘career preparatory,’ to go back to vocational schools, to putting vocation training back into the high schools. I don’t know if that’s the definitive answer, but what I do know is that we’ve become so college preparatory that we’ve said to kids who aren’t necessarily predisposed to a four-year college program that we will focus on helping them graduate high school – but then that’s it.”

Samuel Nunnelly, president of AGC’s San Antonio Chapter, would likely agree. “We now have this mentality within the school system that college is for everyone…This has manifested itself into a shift of funding away from technical and career training and toward college preparatory training. Graduation rates have boomed – which is a wonderful achievement – but [the side effect] is a neglect of others.”

Kenig says AGC and its members need to have the courage to work at changing not only the local practices but the national vision, of prompting a shift of ideologies so we can be both college and career preparatory. He cites a story that made national headlines recently. “President Obama was talking to an audience in Wisconsin about the fact that there are great opportunities in manufacturing and skill trades. And that you can make a very good living with these trades, probably more so than if you major in art history.”

Naturally, this sparked some blow-back. One letter in particular came from an art history professor.

“He wrote her an apology and it was all over the news,” Kenig explains. The story has since made its way into Kenig’s presentations at construction industry events. “He wanted her to understand that he was trying to encourage young people…” He quotes the president here, “‘who may not be predisposed to a four-year college experience to be open to technical training that can lead them to an honorable career.’”

Kenig notes this as a tremendous example of the federal government, the president, in fact, helping AGC change the assumptions often made about construction careers.

Everyone agrees. There’s a laundry list of things that can be done, at both state and local levels.

“Part of the challenges we’ve seen is that many employers haven’t wanted to spend money to train workers in fear of losing them to the competition,” says Michael Sireno, president of Baker Triangle in San Antonio, Texas, a TEXO member. “There’s some truth to that,” he admits, “but if everyone is training, even if people move from company to company we are at least improving the overall skill of our workforce.” Eventually, the entire labor pool is skilled. “It benefits the craft worker and all the companies they work for.”

Unfortunately, notes Mike Dunham, CEO of AGC Georgia, “we live in a society where sometimes you have to answer the question for people, ‘What’s in it for me?’”

What he says is in it for the contractor is the pick of the litter.

The shortage, Dunham notes, is not discriminating in Georgia. “Masons, electricians, dry-wallers will all tell you they can’t find people. Welders are in critical shortage. Everybody needs somebody and that’s pretty alarming. All the boats are taking on water. But a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Contractors taking initiative at every local opportunity, he says, is the key to the solution. “We have 129 high schools that have construction programs.” If 129 or more contractors stepped in and got involved, they then become the foundation for the next wave of skilled workers. “These schools have multiple trades – carpentry, electrical, plumbing, metals – you could easily have several different specialty contractors engaged at a single school. They become the role models. They allow students to learn what a contractor does, learn about the industry, see what we accomplish and what we build.”

And when instructors need assistance, says Dunham, AGC member firms can step in to help. “What contractors can do to help this problem significantly is get engaged. It’s amazing what just one load of two-by-fours can do for a program.”

In the Dakotas, where things are spread out, a shortage of workers means an uptick in air travel. Some companies are actually flying crews up to North Dakota and back, swapping them out because they’re unable to hire enough qualified employees.

Engaged contractors here, says Ben Holst, director of safety and workforce development for AGC of South Dakota, are getting both creative and generous. “There’s an electrical subcontractor that’s done a great job of saying to kids, ‘Hey, we’ll take you on!’” Students head to the local community college for a two-year degree and walk out with a diploma and a job. “They do tuition reimbursement, as well.”

Holst says they’re a wonderful example of contractors helping to solve the workforce issues, but notes that they’re one of the biggies. Many companies are stretched too thin to get involved. “Most of our members don’t have full-time HR managers. You’ve got someone who’s trying to do accounting or project management and human resources. It’s difficult for these firms to go out in the community to establish relationships with high schools or tech schools.”

In his mind, that’s precisely where AGC can help. “We can’t be their HR team, but we are able to speak on the behalf of the industry to the people who are cultivating the future workforce.” And part of that, he says candidly, is AGC learning the language and communication style of up-and-coming generations.

For too long, says Holst, whose HR experience is notable, the practice has been to try to sell students on good-paying jobs. He’s unconvinced of its effectiveness. And with 74 percent of AGC respondents citing “poor training” as a factor in the shortage, it’s unlikely he’s the only one.

“You look at the research on what it takes to recruit and retain people; money is something like No. 7 on the list,” he says. “Meaningful work is higher…Talk to any contractor, anyone who builds things; all of them are proud to point to something and say, ‘I helped make that.’” Holst believes one of the keys to next-gen interest is to show them ways in which a construction career can help them have an impact. “Environmental issues are a great example. I think young people will be willing to accept less money if they’re able to have an impact and enjoy what they do… We should be selling meaning.”

The evolution, he notes, shouldn’t stop with the message; it must also include a shift in attitude and even language. At 37, Holst sits near the line where Gen-X meets Millennial and despite successful construction-awareness campaigns that have embraced new technologies and engaged potential new recruits, he still gets push back from some older members.

“There are grumblings about kids always being on their smart phones,” he says. “But if the older superintendents, if the people who are doing your craft training aren’t willing to accept the next generation for who they are, we’re not going to keep them.”

Young people today, he observes, are used to working in a community. The Internet and social media in all its forms have allowed them, from the get-go, to always have a say. Holst says older people often perceive the “new kid” as trying to drive the decision.

“Construction sites don’t work like the community-based aspects of the Internet. They work like, ‘Here’s a fact. Shut up and do it,’” he chuckles. But construction, he notes, is still very much a community. It would only take a small shift to create the sort of learning environment in which young people will thrive. “In construction, we are already a group of people working together to achieve a goal,” he explains. “It’s just a matter of breaking down the hierarchal structure we have in place to allow young people to ask a question, to share an opinion.”

In Texas, says Mike Kaiman, vice president and general manager of Turner Construction in San Antonio, a member of multiple AGC chapters, it’s imperative not only to speak the language of the young, but to speak more than one language. “We provide bilingual (English-Spanish) training for our employees to ensure that the appropriate skill sets are provided.” Preconceived notions about the industry, he adds, are difficult to surmount. “The greatest challenge I see is the perception by youth that construction is a ‘low-paying, dirty, back-breaking career.’ The ability to spend time in local high schools educating students about the different career paths available…is among the keys to increasing interest in our industry.”

Turner has been a significant supporter and participant in the ACE (architecture construction, engineering) Mentor Program which works to build interest in these fields at the high school level. The rewards have since come home to roost.

In 2011, Turner hired Sarai Martinez – then a student at San Antonio’s Jefferson High School – as an intern. “Today, Sarai is a full-time employee who’s receiving tuition reimbursement as she attends construction management classes at Alamo Community College and the University of Texas,” says Kaiman. “She’s also gone full circle and is a mentor at Jefferson High.”

Will it be enough to keep down costs as Turner plans a large-scale commercial development project that will require a peak manpower load of more than 500 craft workers? Not even close. “We’re planning for a potential ‘traveling’ trade labor workforce from outside the area,” he says. “That requires subsistence pay, potential temporary housing and additional travel costs which ultimately impacts the overall cost.”

Sireno says these days they’re using every mode possible to spread the word that Baker Triangle is hiring, but of every 10 or so who apply, only two or three are actually qualified. Like Kaiman, he touts the idea of a perception shift about the industry, but he’s realistic. “Trying to make hanging drywall in hundred-degree temperatures sound appealing is very difficult.

You have to get the big picture across…” It’s a picture like Holst’s, drawing its depth from meaning. “…it’s the feeling you get when you look back at a project and say, ‘I had a part in that.’ It is hard work, but it is very rewarding.”

Last year, Holst built a tree fort for his kids. In doing so, he attracted the attention of the sixth grader across the street who’d come by to watch, to help. The same boy showed up again months later during a kitchen remodel, fascinated watching the workers do their thing.

“And I thought here is a sixth grader who is drawn to this. He loves construction. But because of the way our educational system is set up, because his school has no shop classes, over the next six years he is going to be weaned off that desire to build something.”

It doesn’t seem quite fair, he surmises – to the child, or the industry.

“Allowing kids to pursue a career that makes their hearts sing – that’s meaningful and plays an important role in society and yes, you can make a decent amount of money doing it – is what we should do. We need to stop telling kids there’s only one way to go after high school.”

For Kenig, the work he sees being done at the national level – between the secretaries of Labor and Commerce, two offices that have not, traditionally, been in the same wheelhouse – is encouraging. In fact, at a recent meeting with both secretaries he came away with a powerful and inspirational quote: “Good workforce development is good economic development.”

“The reason that’s so powerful,” says Kenig, “is because it cuts right through everybody. It doesn’t matter what your politics are. It’s a rallying cry for everyone because with a strong workforce, every state benefits, every community benefits.”