Affecting everything from the fulfillment of national infrastructure projects to the industry’s ability to stock residential developments with capable workers in metropolitan suburbs, including the City of Falls Church, multiple reports from the development sector have shown a shortage of skilled labor in the area.
Associated General Contractors of America reported in an August survey that 70 percent of construction firms report difficulty filling hourly craft positions despite half of the firms reporting an increased base pay to cope with the shortage. Additionally, a joint report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and materials manufacturer USG showed 67 percent of firms anticipating hiring key positions in the next six months with 95 percent reporting some difficulty.
Many sources reporting on the trend at a national level point to everything from tougher immigration laws, the effects of the economic recession that hit a decade ago and a decline of interest among the people who would potentially enter the workforce. Furthermore, a CBS news report stated that for every person entering the industry, five leave.
The News Press spoke with three contracting firms in the city – ADS Construction, L.F. Jennings and WINN Design and Build.
WINN Design and Build is a remodeling company with 12 employees who do everything from the foundation to finishing. Since the company’s inception in 2006, they have been recognized by Arlington Magazine, Remodeling Magazine and INC Magazine for their quality of work and speed of growth, but despite all these accolades, production manager Sean Du Launay said that the firm has trouble finding labor.
“To use a day labor, obviously, that’s easy, but experienced people of quality are harder to find,” he said.
In his role of hiring manager, Du Launay often has the most hit-or-miss with contractor’s assistants. As a result, he often puts them through probationary periods so he’s not penalized by the state (in terms of paying for unemployment) if things don’t work out.
In terms of unskilled labor, he often finds people who he says are referred to as a “chuck in a truck:” an unlicensed carpenter with varying levels of experience who he believes can be a stain on the industry due to their lack of professionalism.
When his firm was looking for a lead carpenter six months ago (someone capable of both running jobs on-site and leading the manual work), Du Launay lucked out in finding a great worker but he believes those candidates are exceedingly rare.
ADS Construction Inc is a small two-man operation run by mechanical engineers Matt Sabet and Hooman Amir. They have run their business for 15 years and focus on metal and framing that relies on a labor crew of between four and 20 depending on the season. Like WINN, they have had trouble finding quality as they go to the big companies.
In response to a CBS News report this past October that of the 1.5 million construction jobs estimated, the 2008 recession drove the same number of construction workers out of the industry with only half of those jobs being recovered.
When asked if there was anything that could reverse the job market to benefit employers, Sabet joked, “a crash like the one in 2007.” He noted, that from his experience, the recession of a decade ago forced many tradesman to either switch jobs or expand their skills causing the quality of the work to go down. For instance, a lot of the development was in commercial which required different skill sets and a lot of retraining.
“When we lose a mechanic, it’s hard to get one back. If we can’t find the same people we used before, and we go with a new crew, the quality goes down. We’re just going to have to work harder to make sure we keep up the quality,” said Sabet.
Sabet and Amir also are concerned about the external costs that OSHA-imposed regulations might cause, a potential raise in the minimum wage or a reduction in immigrants (the company uses Tax IDs for all their workers to make sure it’s all above board).
“One danger is if the government issues future work permits to immigrants, we don’t have much of a Plan B except to charge higher costs for mechanics,” said Amir.
For a company like L.F. Jennings which has been an area institution for 65 years, employs 400 employees and has contracted for projects as diverse as the Mosaic District in Merrifield and Union Market in Washington, D.C., it has been significantly easier to weather any fluctuations in the labor market. Still, senior vice president Mike Killelea believes the company’s high retention rate is due to a conscious effort to provide a great work atmosphere with excellent employee benefits.
“L.F. Jennings is a family business and we treat employees like family,” said Killelea.
Tradesman International cited a drop in high schools offering shop classes and an educational market geared more towards the type of white collar careers that four-year colleges offer in concluding that “a whole generation of younger workers are no longer even considering construction as a viable career option.”
L.F. Jennings has been able to connect to some of the college programs specializing in construction such as Virginia Tech’s Department of Building Construction and Eastern Carolina University’s Construction Management Program for internships for their upper level management and works them up the pipeline. A lot of tradesmen come to the company through word of mouth, but Killelea notes that some of those workers have stayed at the company for twenty years or more.
Moreso, Killelea believes it was the company’s decision not to undergo mass layoffs during the Recession that has proved the company’s advantage to this day.
“We dug deep and invested retained earnings to train our staff, improve our systems, and invest in the latest technologies. The result is today we are better prepared serve our clients because we have the depth of experience and the continuity of the people we invested in during the recession,” said Killelea.
Like Sabet and Amir, Killelea does note that certain crafts such as bricklaying are hard to find. He also believes that the labor market is going to tighten if crackdowns on immigration continue.