Expanding Renovation Market Sets Off Scramble for Workers

A post-recession hiring surge is under way. So why are home improvement companies having a tough time finding skilled installers?

February 19, 2015
Help-wanted sign

Photo: flickr.com

Ken Dillon is looking for roofers. Twenty of them. And he needs them now, according to the Nevada Appeal. Dillon’s employee-owned company had 250 workers on its payroll before the recession, 100 in the lean years just after. But the lean years now appear as mere memory. And not just in Nevada.

In many, if not most, states, construction hiring surges. A story this summer from Finance & Commerce in Minnesota identifies construction as the fastest-growing sector in the state and its year-over-year growth in May as nearly three times the national rate for the industry.

But just because they need people doesn’t mean roofing, siding, and window companies have first dibs on skilled workers seeking a new job. Just about every kind of company involved in construction is in hiring mode, as a recent article in the Orlando Business Journal makes clear, and workers will go where the money takes them. In that article, for instance, Martin Berman, CEO of Berman Property Maintenance & Construction, in Orlando, says that a tremendous amount of skilled labor left Florida during the recession. “Many went to the oil-rich and oil-exploration regions that still showed economic development activity in the construction sector,” he says.

In states such as North Dakota (oil) or Pennsylvania (gas), the fracking industry is proving a difficult business to compete with when it comes to hiring workers who know how to use tools. In 2008, just 3.8 percent of the construction workforce was employed in oil and gas exploration efforts. By 2012, that had almost doubled, to 6.4 percent, and according to FMI, a management consulting company serving the engineering and construction industries, by 2017 nearly 10 percent of the total U.S. construction workforce will have moved over to this burgeoning segment of the industry. But companies aren’t waiting for 2017. They want people now.

A recent blog post on the Construction Citizen website points to data from a new survey conducted by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) that found “an astounding 83 percent of construction firms around the nation are having trouble finding enough workers and the numbers in Texas are even worse.” Late last summer the AGC surveyed 1,086 companies only to find that “not only were the vast majority of them struggling to find craft workers, [but that the toughest jobs to fill were for] roofing, ironworking, bricklaying, and plumbing.” AGC’s chief economist, Ken Simonson, blames changes in the American educational system, which has moved away from teaching students careers and technical skills during the last few decades.

A report on CBS affiliate WINK News, in the Southwest Florida city of Naples, confirms that analysis. But there’s also the fact that some skilled workers who once saw themselves employed in construction for a lifetime no longer want to be there or have simply moved on, as noted in “Where Have All the Construction Workers Gone?” a story in the Atlantic Monthly, which points out that many employed in construction during the housing boom have found new careers or have left the country.

In the aftermath of recessions past, home improvement and remodeling companies often took to hiring at the unskilled level and providing training either through apprenticeships or internship programs or by availing themselves of supplier-sponsored training programs. The oil and gas boom may make that harder to do. If laying shingles pays less than driving a cement truck, the choice for the willing-but-unskilled is all too obvious.

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