By MELISSA HUTSELL
Business Journal Writer
LODI — The demand for infrastructure in the U.S. is growing, but the supply of skilled workers isn’t. The country is in the midst of a construction boom, but nationwide, more than 200,000 jobs in the industry remained unfilled. So, where is the next generation of skilled craftspeople?
A skilled worker, according to Construction Labor Contractors, specifically refers to workers with special training or certification in particular trade fields. In the construction industry, this includes plumbers, electricians, carpenters, heavy equipment operators and masonries such as concrete layers, among others.
The U.S. Department of Labor reports that demand for such positions is expected to grow in the years ahead: the need for masonry workers is predicted to rise by 15 percent from 2014-2024, for instance. Comparatively, demand for electricians, plumbers, and roofers, is expected to grow between 12-14 percent in each sector within the same time span.
Employment within the construction industry overall is likely to grow by 10 percent from 6.5 million to 7.2 million jobs, which is higher than the national average for all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
However, “Even with these additional jobs, employment in the construction major sector is not projected to return to the 2006 peak,” added the BLS. Why? Because demand for these positions is outpacing supply nationwide.
In the Central Valley the need for infrastructure has construction companies struggling to find enough trained craftspeople.
“There’s a lot more work than workers at this point,” said Kari Maldonado, human resource manager, and second-generation member of the family-owned and operated company, Diede Construction, located in Lodi.
Diede Construction completes a diversity of private, public and federal projects all over Northern California, from Folsom to Livingston, and the Bay Area, to Angels Camp. Nearly all the company’s employees are considered skilled or craft workers, Maldonado explained.
While the company continues to experience growth, the labor shortage has certainly presented challenges. With less staff on board, there is more pressure on subcontractors and developers, and longer work hours for existing staff.
“We are reaching out wherever we can, talking to our crews, letting them know we are looking [for more labor.] We do what we have to do to get jobs done,” Maldonado said, even if that means working seven days per week, 12 hours per day.”
However, the shortage has put the company in a constant state of hiring and training. And finding workers with the right skillsets, said Maldonado, is becoming harder.
In fact, 70 percent of firms are having a hard time finding craft workers, according to The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC). A separate survey from the HomeAdvisor reported that nearly all (90 percent) of respondents said their business would grow if not for a declining workforce.
Maldonado believes that the factors that account for this are two-fold. First, she noted, the effects of the economic crisis have made some hesitant to join the field.
When the economy changed in 2008 — the construction industry became more volatile, she explained. Many workers in the field went on to pursue other trades and never returned.
According to eSub, a software application for construction professionals, as many as two million workers were laid off between 2007-2011 due to the recession. While the industry at large has recovered, it has yet to make up for the job losses.
Meanwhile, many are aging out of the workforce, and less young people are coming in.
Despite the need for more craftspeople, Maldonado said that “a lot of guys in construction say it’s a dying trade.”
The lack of younger generations in construction is perhaps the industry’s biggest problem. Millennials, for example, are opting for college degrees over trade schools. The focus on college instead of crafts has created a gap, decades in the making.
This gap is widening as training opportunities become less available.
The elimination of high school programs, and shortage of trade schools has contributed to the shortage, Maldonado explained.
For these reasons, many are urging young people to consider vocational programs. While college degree holders continue to earn higher salaries on average than those without — “skilled worker” salaries are often at or above national averages, according to the BLS. In 2016, the Department of Labor reported that the median annual wage for all construction and extraction occupations was $43,610, whereas the median annual wage for all occupations was $37,040.
Maldonado said the company is committed to finding ways to break through these gaps to reach younger generations to invest in.
In the meantime, the industry outlook remains strong — and open to the new generation of craftspeople.