Industry Grapples With Vanishing Workforce

A new survey finds that 83% of construction firms reported trouble filling craft-worker positions such as carpenter, laborer, and equipment operator.

Thu June 11, 2015 - National Edition
Construction Equipment Guide

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that when it comes to employment numbers, there should be plenty of workers in hard-hats looking for jobs.

But if workers are out there, builders can’t seem to find them.

“It is just more and more difficult to get talent,” said Clay Gordon, vice president and chief development officer at Nabholz Construction.

The Arkansas-based construction and building services company has responded by offering incentives to workers who recruit other employees, improving benefits like paid time off and reducing health-care premiums. Elsewhere, there are signs wage gains are accelerating as companies compete for workers.

But that leaves one big question unanswered: Where did everyone go?

There should be plenty of workers in hard-hats looking for jobs.

From April 2006 through January 2011, nearly 2.3 million construction jobs–more than 40%–were wiped out. As of last month, the sector was still more than 1.3 million jobs shy of its bubble-era peak.

“We’d like to know that, too. We sure know a lot left,” said Ken Simonson, chief economist at the Associated General Contractors of America, a trade group.

The group’s survey last year found that 83% of construction firms reported trouble filling craft-worker positions such as carpenter, laborer and equipment operator.

Mr. Simonson notes that the industry bust started before the recession and lingered well after. The fall from peak employment in April 2006 to trough in January 2011 took 58 months. The recession spanned December 2007 through June 2009.

That lengthy stretch was simply too long for many workers to hold out and too deep to attract any new workers. Mr. Simonson guesses that many headed to the oil and gas industry—though the mining sector as a whole employs fewer than 900,000 people and didn’t add enough jobs to absorb construction’s losses— with others going back to school, to other industries, out of the country, into retirement or out of the workforce.

“The combination of having had this massive long exodus, a late pickup in hiring and now this greatly diminished pool of workers, that’s what has contractors scrambling,” Mr. Simonson said.

Home builders also lost track of a big chunk of their workforce, figuring they lost out to retirement and other industries.

“I think the older workers quit altogether,” said David Crowe, chief economist at the National Association of Home Builders. “Beyond that, I’ve heard anecdotally that many went to be truck drivers. We don’t have a good sense.”

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