Unfinished Business

Wondering why the contractor won't call back? Skilled trades have become the professions hardest hit by a nationwide shortage of labor.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Heather Atkins picks her way through the mud to inspect the half finished construction project that she eventually will call home.

She had hoped to already be living in the two-story abode that's rising on a quiet block in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Va. But with the completion date now bumped back until fall, Ms. Atkins takes the delay in stride.

"It's part of the territory when you're building a new house," she says over the wail of a circular saw. "You can't expect to get everything done exactly on time."

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While delays on Atkins's house stem mostly from complications with storm-sewer offsets, many construction projects around the country are behind schedule by months - or postponed for years - as contractors scramble to find enough skilled workers in the booming economy to get the job done.

The shortage of skilled labor in the building trades, in fact, has been one of the biggest problems facing the industry over the past several years, says Stan Doubinis, director of forecasting at the National Association of Home Builders in Washington.

Builders have a tough time "just trying to find subcontractors who will show up on a job," Mr. Doubinis says of the shortages of carpenters, plumbers, electricians, bricklayers and others needed to construct (or repair) a house. "There are not enough hours in the day for them to do all the work."

Indeed, Atkins talks of friends who live with "holes in their house for six months" while they wait for workers to finish renovation projects that originally were scheduled for eight weeks.

"You can't even get people to come look at jobs anymore to estimate them," she says of contractors swamped with more work than they can handle.

'Days for patience'

In some parts of the country, homeowners may have to wait several seasons before the project they planned even gets under way. In cities like Boston, if a contractor is not turning down work, he or she is saying, "I can do your job, but not for a year, or a year and a half," says Steve Thomas, host of the Public Broadcasting Service's popular home-improvement series, "This Old House."

"These are days for patience," Mr. Thomas says. "Find a high-quality contractor, get in line, and be patient. It is cheaper to wait and to use somebody who has an excellent reputation, and who will do a good job, than to try and rush through it." (See Thomas's other tips on ensuring a smooth renovation, opposite page.)

The shortage of workers is not just having an impact on homebuilders and home improvers. The US Department of Labor estimates that some 240,000 new workers will be required annually for the foreseeable future to meet the demand of the nation's building needs.

"Everyone complains that we have a shortage and that we are being forced to hire unskilled labor from other industries," says Frank Alvarado, safety coordinator for Oncore Construction, a commercial builder based in Bladensburg, Md.

"These workers are the ones who are most likely to have accidents on the job sites, or take more of an investment in training," he says during a break in supervising a crew of 50 workers who are erecting a hotel in Old Town Alexandria.

Mr. Alvarado says competition for labor is so fierce, companies are engaging in a salary war. "Companies will come in, and if you're not careful, they will take your foreman - offer him $3 to $4 an hour above what he is getting paid. They'll take your foreman and half the crew with him."

Some construction companies recruit workers from Central and South America, Alvarado explains, pointing out that many construction crews are nearly all Hispanic. His company offers employees a $100 bonus if they can bring in a worker who will stay for more than 45 days.

Worker shortages are pounding all regions of the country, particularly the mountain states. In Denver, Colo., for instance, contractors have taken to driving trucks with signs advertising "now hiring," says David Brockway, senior project manager of Centric-Jones Co., a Denver-based commercial builder with about 650 employees. "I've never seen that before."

The general public will feel the impact when shopping centers and office buildings "don't get done as soon as they could have otherwise," Brockway says. The job duration lengthens, "because there are only so many people to do so much work, and it's still booming out here. The work keeps coming, but the people don't."

Too few workers coming in

Basic economic laws of supply and demand are at play in the current crunch, notes labor expert Carl Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and a professor of public policy.

The economy continues its relentless forward march, with strong growth in the construction trades. "There just aren't enough people in the pipeline," Mr. Van Horn says. And while it's a story that can be told in all segments of the economy, he notes, "It's an acute problem in the construction sector."

The problem is not simply that more homes are being built than ever before, says Doubinis of the Home Builders Association. In fact, the number of housing starts last year hit just about 1.7 million, less than the peak of more than 2 million housing starts in 1978. "But the size of the houses today are enormous," he explains.

New homes average more than 2,000 square feet and are chock-full of amenities, including elaborate kitchens and 2.5 bathrooms. Fifteen years ago, homes averaged about 1,600 square feet with only 1.5 bathrooms. "There is more stuff inside," Doubinis says of houses today. "It takes more of the plumbers' time, more of the cabinetmakers' time, more of the carpenters' time."

The task of finding enough workers to do these jobs is exacerbated by a dearth of young people willing to take up the building trades as they opt for less physically demanding careers. And with only about 5 million people employed throughout all the construction trades, shortfalls of several thousand can have a big impact, he says.

"Look at a construction site, and you'll see an awful lot of gray hair," says Mr. Doubinis. "Our labor force is aging and aging fast. Kids are looking at high tech, and they don't know the kind of money that can be made in construction."

In affluent northern Virginia, for instance, a laborer makes about $8 to $10 an hour, a carpenter's apprentice between $12 and $15, and a carpenter as much as $25 an hour, notes Danny Graumann, owner of Graumann Construction, a small general contractor based in Alexandria.

"I think they are entitled to more," says Mr. Graumann, who has been in the business since he graduated from high school in the 1970s with no option of entering college. He rejects the stereotype image of construction workers as uneducated people who rely solely on their brawn

That notion, he says, "just isn't fair." He says his seven employees - who work on Atkins's house, among other projects - "take great pride in their work."

He recalls a time years ago when tradesmen would travel up to 110 miles every morning from their homes in the country to work at sites in northern Virginia. "But what is happening now is that the travel is more difficult, and it is not lucrative to come this far."

He sees the industry heading for a deepening crisis as the economy lures more and more people into white-collar and even other, less physically demanding blue-collar jobs. Yet he understands workers' motives.

"You can do another job for less pain, and for more money," Graumann says. "It is pretty hard physically," he says of construction work. "Sometimes the reward is just not there for the amount of effort you put into it."

It's so grueling, in fact, Graumann doesn't want his children take to up the hammer.

"My daughter graduated from college and is teaching," he explains. "And my son is starting college this August, and I hope he gets into business management. He doesn't want to get into this field. He sees the stress and the toll that it takes."

Decline of the family firm

Mr. Graumann is typical of many baby-boomer contractors who in a previous generation might well have passed the skills down to their offspring and gladly tagged an "& Son" (daughters came aboard in rare cases) after their company title, says Van Horn of Rutgers. Many young people today simply are no longer interested in entering the family construction business, he notes.

Partly the parents are not encouraging it, and "partly society is sending the message, 'we give higher esteem to people who have advanced degrees and we afford them more financial rewards,' " Van Horn says.

"Very few people brag about their children being carpenters," he says. "They brag about their sons and daughters going to college. It's part of the American dream. And in some sense, they are right; the long-term prospect is better for a college graduate. They will make more money if they graduate from even a moderately selective school."

Van Horn predicts supply will eventually meet demand in the construction trades, as it does in other industries. Until then, consumers may have to go the do-it-yourself route, or just endure the rationing of projects, he says.

Ultimately, what ought to happen, he says, "is the value of that labor will increase."

Atkins has already experienced some of that potential sticker shock. She and her future husband considered upgrading their home's flooring design to something more elaborate.

"But the good people are really expensive right now," she said. "They can charge a huge premium. It is impacting what we can put in there."

Meantime, she's in an increasingly common bind. Atkins considers herself and her fianc somewhat handy with tools. But she also knows their limitations: "We can do small things, but we can't build a house."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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