Lack of skilled construction workers slowing local projects

Construction of new retail space on Springobro Pike in Miami Township at Lyons Rd. Employers are saying the can’t find enough construction workers for the number of jobs available. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

caption arrowCaption
Construction of new retail space on Springobro Pike in Miami Township at Lyons Rd. Employers are saying the can’t find enough construction workers for the number of jobs available. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

A surge in local building projects and a lack of skilled trades people and construction craft workers have squeezed construction companies and delayed openings for some new buildings.

The opening for the new $64 million downtown main library branch was delayed in part because of the competitive competition for construction workers Dayton Metro Library President Tim Kambitsch told the Dayton Daily News.

“Right now, we’ve got more work than we got workers,” said Rich Hobbs, executive director of the Associated General Contractors of Ohio, a trade association for firms that oversee construction projects.

The library project was in competition for workers as new buildings were raised for Dayton Children’s Hospital, Sinclair Community College, and Kettering Health Network, among other projects.

“There’s definitely not enough craft workers for the amount of work that’s out there now,” said John Danis, chairman and chief executive of Danis Building Construction.

Andy Goetz, vice president, Shook Construction, said his company can’t find union-represented masons at the moment in the Dayton area.

“All the people are working right now,” Goetz said. “So there are zero people available.”

Robert Ewry, school-to-work apprenticeship coordinator at the Miami Valley Career Technology Center, said the problem isn’t getting better. He knows of one local job site looking for 15 students willing to learn carpentry work.

“I just don’t have any students to go around,” Ewry said.

The Danis solution could become an industry-wide answer: Danis does more craft work itself versus sub-contracting that out to smaller firms.

At the bottom of the last recession, Danis had fewer than 100 craftspeople. Today, the firm has more than 300.

“The subcontractors are good — they just don’t have enough people to do all the work,” Danis said.

So the company uses its own carpenters, drywall workers, workers for structural steel and metals jobs, excavation and more.

“It’s easier to control your own fate,” Danis said.

Owning your workforce

Perhaps 50 years ago, large general contractors tended to have their own craft labor crews — electricians, carpenters and others, said John Morris, president of the Ohio Valley Chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors. Over the last 30 to 40 years, however, firms slowly split off and formed specialty contractors, he said.

“Some of them are going with the approach of increasing their own labor force,” Morris said. “We may see a turn back to seeing the large general contractors decide to own their own labor force again.”

The local problem mirrors a national one. The United States has 506,000 federally registered apprentices, Fortune magazine reported last week. But Germany, with an economy only a quarter the size of the U.S., has 1.4 million apprentices, the magazine said.

And qualified workers are hard to find in any field of late. There were 6 million open jobs in the United States in April, a record high, according to U.S. Department of Labor data released last month.

Danis said his company was able to complete the $140 million Dayton Children’s Hospital tower on time.

But it wasn’t easy.

“There was a lot of overtime work on that job,” he said. “Six- and seven-day work weeks. But when you’re supposed to get something done, you’re supposed to get it done.”

And general contractors have to be smart about taking jobs, he said.

“You got to know your job and you got to make sure you don’t overextend yourself,” Danis said. “You don’t take work with schedules that aren’t realistic.”

Ian Simpson, senior project executive for Messer Construction, said his company strives to plan projects well in advance, alerting subcontractors months ahead of time when Messer will be bidding on work.

Another approach: Messer increasingly relies on a construction pre-fabrication process, to reduce craft hours on job sites. The company can hire another business to fabricate risers or even bathroom pods, for example.

“It’s a good process,” Simpson said.

‘A culture shift’

Hobbs sees a number of reasons for the problem. The Affordable Care Act — also known as “Obamacare” — discouraged some smaller firms from taking on more than 50 workers after 2010, the workforce threshold for certain benefit requirements, he said.

Some trades workers moved from Ohio during the last recession, some moving to the oil industry in other parts of the country, he also said.

While the commercial and industrial sector “kept chugging along” even during the last recession, Morris said, home construction was indeed affected. And home construction serves as a worker pipeline for the industrial sector.

Maybe the biggest cause: For years, all too many families, teachers and high school counselors have not seen construction and trades as attractive career options for students.

Said Shook’s Goetz: “Honestly, I think it’s a culture shift.”

“We’re kind of reaping the harvest of this,” Hobbs said. “It’s happened over decades.”

The average age of people coming into the industry is 28. “That’s pretty old,” Hobbs said.

Construction companies are fighting an old image of the industry that claims it offers no more than cyclical jobs exposed to the weather.

Industry leaders counter by saying workers can make good money free of college debt.

“People need to understand that careers in construction are viable, good paying careers with no debt, where the training is paid for by the employer, and the experience is learned on the job,” he added.

Ewry doesn’t agree that starting wages are the problem. Wages begin at $10 to $12 an hour in some sites, but the apprenticeships offer nearly free on-the-job training, he said.

By the numbers

506,000: U.S. registered construction apprentices

1.4 million: Germany registered construction apprentices

28: Average age for starting construction worker

About the Author