PA Contractors Confront Severe Skilled Labor Shortage

Wed October 20, 2004 - Northeast Edition
Joseph Cress

CARLISLE, PA (AP) Time is money. The schedule is king. But contractors can’t find enough skilled labor to meet those key demands for a business that is booming.

In this country built by the hard labor of the blue-collared worker, many now look at a construction career as too tough to consider, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So, a vacuum is developing.

John R. Zimmer, president of Keystone Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), hears about it all the time from industry experts who operate in Cumberland County and other counties across central Pennsylvania.

For example, he said school boards and store owners are real “sticklers” about any delay in a project’s deadline. And that puts contractors in a squeeze.

The industry may be viewed as lucrative, but it is pressure-packed because of a lack of a labor pool to get jobs done on time. Fresh talent is not replacing the number of workers who retire or move on, Zimmer said.

This forces some contractors into making deeper cuts in profit margins as they try to balance the need to submit competitive bids with the need for overtime to close gaps in coverage at work sites.

Hal Berkstresser, cooperative education coordinator of Cumberland Perry Area Vocational Technical School in Silver Spring Township, is well aware of the high stress level in the building trades.

He receives approximately 75 phone calls from employers looking to hire apprentice level workers to do masonry, carpentry, electrical projects and welding.

“I do not have enough students for them,” Berkstresser said. “If we have two, they want four. If I give them four, they want eight.”

Part of his job is to facilitate cooperative apprenticeship programs so that eligible students gain work experience within a trade while still in school. Demand is so high among the construction trades that virtually every senior who wanted a job last year landed a position upon graduation.

Last year, approximately 80 percent of those students went on to full-time employment with their co-op employer, Berkstresser said. That’s because the industry is hungry for workers and anxious to keep people they have helped to train.

Overall, “They have a 95 percent chance of getting employed,” Berkstresser said.

Jody Snider, a carpentry teacher at the school, agrees that the school cannot meet all of the demands of the construction field.

He noted the technical school does its best by having a comprehensive curriculum and meeting twice a year with an advisory board of industry experts who provide insight into market demands.

Still, the school has a waiting list in carpentry. Room does exist for up to five students in masonry, electrical and heating, ventilation and air conditioning programs, said Mary Rodman, administrative director.

But the bottom line is, “We are almost at total capacity.”

The Carlisle Center for Career and Technology within the Carlisle Area has a carpentry program that is “busting out at the seams,” said Frank August, director of the Carlisle Area School District’s vocational program.

The program is operated as an apprenticeship affiliated with the Associated Builders and Contractors.

Flexibility has been built into the program to allow Carlisle area students to obtain up to four years of training prior to graduation, the director said.

August added that he also receives calls from contractors who want to hire qualified students to fill job openings.

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts job opportunities in carpentry, masonry and plumbing to be excellent through 2012 while the demand for electricians is projected as good for the same period.

Job openings for those same trades are anticipated to grow faster than the average for all occupations. The bureau’s Occupational Outlook Handbook for 2004-05 attributes this trend to an increase in construction, the need to replace retirees or those who move on and the belief that many potential workers prefer less strenuous work in more comfortable working conditions.

A basic dilemma is that public perception is not easily reversed. Another problem involves skill levels when young people do replace retiring workers. Rodman poses the question of when they will approach an equivalent level of productivity of the 20-plus employees, who are leaving the business all too fast.

Second- and third-year apprentices simply do not have the expertise that comes with a combination of knowledge and on-the-job experience, Rodman said.

He compared carpentry to surgery when it comes to knowing what to do with the mind and hands. “Nobody wants a surgeon who can just pass the written test. They want somebody with tested ability.”

For a contractor, the ability to expand the business is directly related to the ability to put a competent crew on a job, Zimmer said.

The typical crew consists of a lead foreman or job superintendent overseeing a mix of journeymen or apprentice workers at various skill levels.

And Zimmer said the newcomers “are green and limited in what they can do.”

For a year or so, the apprentice worker is more of a “liability with promise” than an asset to the company.

To compensate, more and more contractors resort to overtime to make up the difference without passing on any dramatic increase through project bids.

“It’s very competitive out there,” said Zimmer, who believes construction firms absorb the extra costs instead of attempting to pass them on to customers. This makes the construction field riskier, Zimmer said. “So many things can go wrong which you have no control over.”

For example, a typical contract includes a certain number of rain days, not the heavy rainfall so far this year, Zimmer said.

“The companies are eating into their own profit margins.”

At the same time, contractors have to balance the number of jobs they have with the availability of manpower to keep customers happy and to avoid layoffs during seasonal lulls in construction, Snider said.

Zimmer said the use of technology to do the work more efficiently is helping contractors.

Rodman said smaller companies suffer the most from the worker shortage because larger firms can afford better pay and benefits and, thus, attract more workers.

That is why the average homeowner has to make several calls to get a plumber, carpenter or smaller company to come out and give an estimate on a home repair or improvement project, Rodman said.

Associated Builders and Contractors and its member organizations predicted this trend some 20 years ago. Efforts were initiated then to attract young people to the construction trades, Zimmer said.

But lures into the trades have to grow because the average construction tradesmen is almost 48 years old now and the “30-somethings” aren’t nearly as visible on work sites to fill enough of their shoes as they leave, Zimmer said.