Construction workers in short supply in NC

A new survey shows that 76 percent of NC contractors are having a hard time finding carpenters, concrete workers and truck drivers.

A construction worker helps build an apartment complex on Park Avenue in Raleigh, Tuesday, September 5, 2017. The building is one of the many changes along the Hillsborough Street corridor. (Eamon Queeney / North State Journal)

RALEIGH — A nationwide shortage of construction workers is hitting N.C. and with the flooding damage to Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the situation for construction companies may get worse. According to a survey just released from the Associated General Contractors of American found that more than three-quarters of construction companies surveyed in N.C. say that they are having trouble finding skilled construction labor. The same percentage of companies say they plan to grow in the next 12 months, creating an even tighter market demand for skilled labor.

The deficit may slow rebuilding efforts in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which caused extensive flood damage to homes and businesses and is set to be one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history.

Nine years after the housing bust in 2006 drove an estimated 30 percent of construction workers into new fields like technology or manufacturing, many never returned.  Coupled with the retirement of the Baby Boomers and the increasing emphasis on 4-year colleges and white-collar jobs among young people, the dearth of killed and unskilled labor remains at all levels of experience, according to the National Association of Homebuilders.

The survey also reported that 63 percent of general contractors rate the pipeline in N.C. for skilled labor as “poor.” Only 28 percent rate the pipeline as “fair” and none rated it as “excellent.” Maryah Smith-Overman, director of the Construction Trades program at Durham Technical Community College is trying to do something about that.  She is seeing enrollment grow at a fast pace with waiting lists for most of the classes.

“We are seeing a big increase, a lot of folks knocking at the door. We are also definitely seeing a demand from the community; folks interested in career changes or who are unemployed or underemployed and are interested in working in the field,” said Smith-Overman.

Smith-Overman says she is hearing from N.C. industry partners that the need is greatest here for skilled carpenters, HVAC specialists and plumbers. She is adding classes all the time and working with students to get the skills they need and three-year apprenticeships so that their wages grow along with their experience.

‘Everyone is looking for good employees to fill positions, especially as folks are retiring from the field or just to keep up with the building that’s going on in the area, and we would like to keep local folks in those positions,” she said.

Nationwide, income for skilled laborers has jumped nearly thirty percent in three years.  Dry wall tapers, for instance, earned an average hourly wage of $21.26 in 2016, a 29 percent jump from three years before, while carpenters earned an average of $25.09 per hour, a 57 percent increase over the same time.

In Texas, those rates may climb even higher during Harvey recovery. Contractors in Houston are growing worried that they will have trouble finding enough staff to deal with the more than 130,000 structures flooded in Harris County, home to the United States’ fourth largest city. Texas, which is in the middle of a building boom, reported that 69 percent of contractors were having trouble filling positions even before the storm hit.

“We expect that we are going to be inundated with phone calls once the water level goes down and we’re going to have to hire more people, but I don’t know where they will come from,” said Lynnie Griffin, who works at Houston-based WestStar Drywall, which focuses on the residential market.

Adding to the difficulty, The Pew Research Center estimated last year that 28 percent of Texas’ construction workforce is in the country illegally while other studies have put the number as high as 50 percent. Stan Marek, chief executive of Marek Construction in Texas, said his company doesn’t hire undocumented immigrants and has long had difficulty finding enough trained U.S. workers.

“It’s a crisis,” Marek said. “We are looking at several thousand homes that have flood damage. There is no way the existing legal workforce can make a dent in it.”

It isn’t yet possible to estimate how many construction jobs will be added in Texas as it rebuilds, but in the 12 months after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Louisiana added 14,800 jobs in the sector, U.S. government data shows.