Hundreds of thousands of construction jobs will be created in the U.S. during the next several years. Many remodelers are beginning to wonder whether they'll be able to fill even a few of those positions with the kinds of employees they feel comfortable sending into clients' homes.
Credit: Current Population Survey; U.S. Census Bureau/Bureau of Labor Statistics
In El Dorado Hills, Calif., Paul Reeves of Reeves Construction struggles to find new hires who can pass the drug tests required by his insurer. Rarely does the “whiz quiz,” as some remodelers call it, not reveal methamphetamine, cocaine, or marijuana, if not also high levels of alcohol, in U.S.-born applicants who might otherwise seem qualified.
Meanwhile, it might be the end of the line for the Reeves family of builders. Whereas 43-year-old Paul learned the trade from his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, starting as an adolescent sweeping the shop after school, his own kids and their peers “don't want to get dirty,” he says.
“I live in an affluent neighborhood, and other than me, pretty much the only people they see working in the trades are Hispanic immigrants,” Reeves says, adding that one of his best carpenters is a 47-year-old, college-educated math teacher from Mexico. There's no trade track at Reeves' local high school — no problem, as sexier occupations are clicks away. His teenage stepdaughter makes $10 an hour as an intern for Intel, a position she lined up online. Even Starbucks pays $10.50 an hour plus benefits, Reeves says.
Across the country in Green Bank, W.Va., Malinda Meck has a hard time finding well-rounded workers of any age for Jacob S. Meck Construction. Given her state's chronic poverty and high unemployment, one might expect droves of applicants for her steady, well-paying, benefit-rich jobs. Retention is even more challenging; employees seem to drift away on a whim. Some go to nearby ski resorts or lumberyards, and some are just “too hung-over or stoned to work,” she says.
So dire is the skilled worker shortage in Meck's area that she's even started new businesses that supply roll-off garbage containers and portable toilets. “These jobs don't require high-level skills,” she says.
A different employment dilemma faces Jerry Liu in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. He finds that educators and parents are major obstacles to reinforcing his journeymen carpenters — guys in their 40s and 50s whom he calls “the walking wounded,” and who he predicts will soon be able to command salaries of $100,000 or more in the competitive market.
Credit: Bureau of Labor Statistics
As in many metropolitan regions, school systems in Liu's area have down-sized vocational education. Sadly, some construction programs that remain seem to be a dumping ground for low achievers that the schools don't know where else to put. “Our schools define success as ‘percentage college-ready,'” says the owner of D.G. Liu Contractor, in Dickerson, Md. “It's an inherently prejudiced system” because it implies that trade professionals aren't smart, he says. “Where do you get construction workers when everybody's raised as keyboarders?”
Determined to avert “crisis in 10 years,” Liu has been proactive about workforce development, going so far as to develop his own apprenticeship program [see “Growing His Own,” in Best Practices]. Many other remodelers have found their own ways to crack the labor code, and we'll be showcasing some of their success stories as well in this series.
But the prevailing mood in the industry is this: Far too few young people are being groomed for remodeling careers. It's going to take far more than an ad in the paper and a decent hourly wage to find and retain skilled and committed employees.