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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 Neal LearnerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 14, 2000


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

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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."

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.