Cleveland Contractors Face Worker Shortage As Construction Backlog Builds

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The temperature is below freezing at a construction site in downtown Cleveland. That’s where workers from a company called Donley’s are pouring concrete for The Lumen, a 34-story apartment tower project that began in Fall 2018.

At his office in Cleveland, CEO Mac Donley says that when the weather turns warm, there will be even more work to take on, so he has a team of full-time recruiters looking to hire for jobs like laborers, cement masons, and carpenters.
“You need to stay in front of it at this point,” Donley said. “You cannot be reactive or your competition is going to go right by you.”

Donley is among the majority of construction executives who say they’re planning to expand their payrolls in 2019. According to a survey of more than 1,300 contractors by the Associated General Contractors of America, 79 percent of respondents said they plan to hire more people this year to meet a growing demand for building projects. Compared with previous surveys, that’s up from 75 percent of respondents in 2018 and 73 percent in 2017. 

But there are plans, and then there’s reality: according to the most recent survey, 78 percent of contractors are also having a hard time finding workers to fill open positions. 

“Is the labor shortage real?” said Donley. “It's absolutely real.”

“The old guard, they're getting older and retiring, and what's happening is we're not having a lot of people take their place,” said Ariane Kirkpatrick, CEO of a construction firm in Cleveland called The AKA Team. [Adrian Ma / ideastream]

In this tight labor market, contractors around the country are paying more to attract skilled tradesmen and tradeswomen. The average salary for a pipe welder has increased more than 10 percent since 2015. And for sheet metal workers, pay is up more than 18 percent. That’s according to surveys by the nonprofit National Center for Construction Education & Research.

But even if a company is willing to pay for the best, it often has to settle for what it can get. 
“That's why the industry is spending much more on training,” said Ken Simonson, Chief Economist for the Associated General Contractors of America. Companies are investing more in less experienced workers, Simonson says, because there is “a growing backlog of demand” for construction of both public and private buildings, infrastructure, and apartments.
And there’s a growing number of unfilled construction jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were about 380,000 construction job openings last December. That’s the highest number of openings of any month in the past decade. Besides the economic factors driving the labor crunch, many who work in construction say the industry has a marketing problem.

That’s why on a recent Saturday, Orlando Taylor, a Project Manager at Turner Construction, is speaking to a small group of jobseekers at Ohio Technical College, extolling the virtues of a career in construction.

“What I love about construction is no one has ever done the project that is about to be done, ever, because the building doesn’t exist,” said Taylor cheerfully to a mostly empty room.

The presentation was sponsored by a trade group called the Construction Employers Association, which for years has provided mentors and scholarships for people interested in the field. But a few years ago, they started doing events like these in various communities, with the thinking being that when it comes to construction jobs, many people simply don’t know what their options are or where to begin. It’s necessary work, Taylor says, as the older generation of workers ages out. 

“You ask kids, ‘What do you want to be?’” he said. “They will say things that they’ve seen on TV,” whether it be LeBron James or a police officer. “Zero people will say, ‘I want to be an electrician,’ because how often do you see an electrician? So you just don’t know that exists.”

Unfortunately, on this Saturday, only a few people seem to know that this presentation exists. Only about five job seekers showed up. Still, one of them, Natalie Beasley, seems excited by what she hears. Beasley is 41 and a mom. She says she’s been doing house painting for years and is hoping to take her skills to the next level. 

“I'm definitely checking into the apprenticeships and the union and hopefully, everything could work out,” Beasley said. “Who knows what could happen in a year or two.”

Many contractors though, can’t afford to wait that long. With deep demand for building projects and a shallow labor pool, some construction executives are finding workarounds. 
“There were times last year where we hired carpenters from other companies to work on the weekends, just to keep up with our workload,” said Arthur Lindrose, President of Bolton Pratt. He’s even lured workers out of retirement to help finish a job, he said.

Not ideal. But an example of how personal connections can make a difference. 

On that score, Ariane Kirkpatrick says she likes to send birthday cards to current and former employees of her company, The AKA Team. 
“You wouldn't believe that response, at how many people appreciate that,” Kirkpatrick said. “They’re like, ‘I've worked for a company 10 year or 20 years. Nobody ever acknowledged me like that!’”
 And when they need a job, she says, hopefully, they’ll acknowledge her by signing up to work.

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