- Associated Press - Sunday, October 2, 2016

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) - Talk to any contractor in northwest Lower Michigan and you’ll probably notice an undercurrent of frustration.

The Traverse City Record-Eagle (http://bit.ly/2dtj1ah ) reports that potential construction projects are everywhere but contractors cannot take on some jobs simply because they can’t find enough people to swing hammers.

“I’ve got enough work to keep me busy through next year,” said John Desmond, owner of Traverse City-based JD Construction. “But I don’t have enough workers. I can’t get applicants. I’ve been having a heck of a time.”

Desmond, like most contractors across the region, wants to take on additional projects - if he could find people to cut lumber, lay cement blocks and guide a paint brush. But the bodies just aren’t there. The frustration in his voice is obvious as he talks while standing on the roof of a house under construction, a sweeping view of Lake Michigan spread out in front of him.

“I get a few calls, but they don’t show up,” he said of his efforts to attract workers with help-wanted ads.

Desmond clearly feels crimped by his inability to find workers, experienced or not.

“It’s been going on a good six months,” he said. “I turned down nine houses last week.”

There is hope on the horizon. High school students are beginning to recognize the opportunity in the construction industry. Sam McCrumb is a local high school senior. He just ended a second summer working for Pathway Homes and is looking at the trades as a career.

“I’m interested in project management,” said McCrumb.

The shortage of skilled trades workers is a national issue. The term “skilled trades” includes the various jobs that require training and contribute to the construction industry - masons, bricklayers, electricians, plumbers, painters, carpenters, roofers and heating/cooling (HVAC) workers. All are in varying degrees of short supply across the nation.

Associated General Contractors of America, an industry trade group, is well aware of the problem. It recently released the results of a nationwide survey on the worker shortage.

“Labor shortages are not going away any time soon,” Brian Turmail, AGC senior executive director of public affairs said. “Many construction firms across the nation are facing chronic workers shortages, particularly hourly workers.”

More than half - 54 percent - of the nearly 1,500 survey respondents across the country expect it will continue to be difficult to find and hire skilled tradesmen through the next 12 months. An additional 21 percent expect it will become more difficult.

Attitudes are even more pessimistic in the Midwest, where 57 percent of survey respondents believe the situation will remain difficult and 25 percent think it will get worse.

“With the construction industry in most of the country now several years into a recovery, many firms have gone from worrying about not having enough work to not having enough workers,” Stephen Sandherr, AGC CEO said during a conference call arranged by the organization to announce the study’s results.

Skilled trades positions are available because construction - both residential and commercial - is booming in most regions nationwide. A generation of skilled trades workers are aging out of the workforce, leaving a gap between plenty of work and not enough workers.

Young people who in past generations might have sought careers in the skilled trades have instead followed the crowd into higher education. College enrollment has swelled in recent decades. The ranks of 20-somethings entering the skilled trades have been shrinking.

“My crew is 10 years older than it was 10 years ago,” said Bob Roe of Precision Plumbing and Heating. “To find new skilled trade workers is very difficult across the board. I talk to carpenters and framers and they say it’s the same.”

Thomas Jurkovich, 17, of Traverse City, aims to pursue construction as his lifelong career. That’s not too surprising, since his father owns Pathway Homes. Jurkovich already works summers for Pathway, and may hire on full time after he graduates in 2017. He’s considering joining the Marines next year, but even he does, he said he will return to Pathway after four years. He has been enjoying the variety of tasks during his summers.

“Every day is a little different,” he said. “When it’s gotta be done, I’ll do it.”

Jurkovich is one of a growing number of students entering the workforce who may help solve the worker shortage in coming years. Northwestern Michigan College’s construction trades classes have attracted many folks already in the workforce who seek a switch in career and steady employment. But the average age of students in the program has skewed lower in the last two semesters, said Dan Goodchild, coordinator of Construction Technology at NMC, indicating that youngsters are becoming more aware of career opportunities in construction.

“We are seeing more younger people than we have in the past, but they’re still in their 20s,” Goodchild said.

Do local contractors expect relief soon for the worker shortage?

“Not that I see,” said Desmond.

The shortage of skilled workers has driven some contractors to hire laborers with no construction experience, people who require on-the-job training and simply can’t work as fast.

“I’m even to the point where I’ll hire people who don’t have experience, just people to get nails and saws. I’ll train ‘em. But I can’t get people,” said Desmond.

The worker pinch has resulted in a 1-2-3 punch to home buyers. They typically need to wait before their project can begin, the work itself can take longer and the tight labor market has driven up prices.

“You definitely see costs inching up,” said Marcy Hurst, executive assistant at MAC Custom Homes. “People are able to charge more because they’re in demand. This area is drawing (home buyers) from all over - we have clients from overseas, all areas, Chicago, one from Oregon moving back. Basically we’re just operating with a lot of patience.

“It’s harder to find skilled people. Not only do we have smaller crews, there can be a lot of re-work. That’s been our biggest challenge.”

MAC Custom Homes operates with seven employees, including three in the field at job sites. The company works with about 25 subcontractors. Those subcontractors, in turn, deal with the problem of finding enough workers who have the skills required to create a quality product.

“We have a core group (of subcontractors) that we work with,” Hurst said. “We are seeing some struggles on their end.”

Nancy and Victor Lisabeth, both licensed builders, own Grand Bay Building and Remodeling. They’ve been working in the Traverse City area since 2003, when they began building in the Lochenheath development.

“We started out doing new homes here, then added the remodeling,” Nancy Lisabeth said. “That now seems to be our niche. We’ve got some larger projects going, and can take smaller projects only occasionally. I feel sorry for the people who have small projects.”

Industry experts believe the long-term solution to the worker shortage is to attract more interest among high school students.

The Home Builders Association Grand Traverse Area dedicated its 2015 annual Scholarship Dinner to raising awareness of trades career opportunities among students, parents and area residents. The HBAGTA has since 1985 awarded 124 scholarships totalling $84,500 to students who plan to make a career in the building trades. The organization’s annual scholarship dinner is scheduled for Oct. 26.

The HBAGTA, the Career Tech Center and NMC’s Construction Technology Program have begun working toward a common goal to bring a greater awareness of the skilled trades to junior high and high school students, said Judy Vajda, HBAGTA executive officer.

Efforts to attract the interest of younger workers appears to be gaining traction.

“We’ve had to over-enroll our courses, primarily in carpentry,” said NMC’s Goodchild. “We max out our classes at about 15, but our three classes this fall are running at 18 each.”

Dustin Parks, 38, hired on at Pathway Homes 10 months ago as a purchasing coordinator. He swiveled his career into the construction industry to seek opportunity for advancement.

“I do see it as a long-term career,” said Parks.

Thousands of miles away in Washington state, an industry group has launched an advertising campaign touting the rewards of careers in the skilled trades. That state forecasts a shortage of carpenters, laborers, masons and painters at least through the year 2020.

“Students now starting classes will have internship offers and job interviews within 30 days of beginning classes,” said Nancy Munro, executive manager of MidMountain Contractors, Inc., based in Kirkland, Washington. “Most seniors have jobs before graduation in Washington construction college programs.”

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Information from: Traverse City Record-Eagle, http://www.record-eagle.com

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