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Construction Industry Struggling To Fill Growing Number Of Job Openings

Eileen Pace
TPR News

An announcement earlier this year that the number of construction jobs has increased was good news, heralding a recovering economy. But the news is a double-edged sword for contractors who have to try harder to find good workers.

Soon there will be bands playing and football players running the length of the field at Alamo Stadium. After 18 months of construction, the 2010 San Antonio ISD bond project was completed this week.

Kamar ElHabr, SAISD associate superintendent of facilities, credited contractors Joeris and Hunt with finishing the stadium project on time for the new school year.

"There were some issues; nothing critical," ElHabr said. "We really have a top quality general contractor, Joeris and Hunt, and they were able to pull resources to get us finished. They understand when we needed the stadium back, so they were able to pull the resources and subcontractors to get us in place."

Other school districts reported similar results for their projects over the past year.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in August that construction added more than 200,000 jobs this year nationwide. Economist Ken Simonson with the Associated General Contractors of America noted increases in both home building and infrastructure construction starting early this year.

"Texas and the San Antonio area are well ahead of national averages," Simonson said. "Texas has been adding population at about double the national rate in the last few years, so much more demand for homes, both single family and apartments."

The increase in construction projects is a welcome signal of a recovering economy. But there’s a back story.

"It's a good-news story up until the point that you determine that you don't have the workforce to sustain the number of projects that are on the books," said Doug McMurry of AGC’s San Antonio chapter.

"We cannot get enough carpenters," said Maryanne Guido, CEO of Guido Brothers Construction. Guido has it own share of school projects, and is also working on the River Walk and the new children’s museum on Broadway.

Guido Vice-President and Superintendent of the San Antonio Children's Museum site Tom Sanchez said it's a matter of juggling tasks within the project when workers are available.

"Lately we've been trying to find carpenters and laborers and it's just been real hard to find manpower," Sanchez said. "It's a little bit of a struggle. We get one or two guys and they don't last very long, so we're having a hard time finding them."

"The subcontractors that perform plumbing or glass or roofing are really, really busy," Guido said. She said an aging workforce and a decline in trade school programs has combined to create a deficit of skilled workers.  

"The subcontractors that perform plumbing, or glass, or roofing; they're really, really busy," she said.

"We're losing construction workers at a pretty steady clip," said Brain Turmail with AGC. Turmail agreed that the pipeline of new workers has been dismantled over time with the reduction of vocational programs. "San Antonio is a rare exception in that you've got a pretty vibrant construction career academy in the San Antonio area. But most districts don't have a good pipeline for exposing high school students to careers in construction or training them for careers in construction if they're interested."

"If you get three or four people coming in applying for a job, you're lucky right now," said Mike Sireno, president of Baker Dry Wall in San Antonio. He said much of the workforce left construction about the same time fracking picked up, and without people, they can’t bid for new work. School districts and other entities say they notice that the bids for new projects are coming in higher. Sireno and others say companies have to compete for workers in a way that’s never happened before.

"We have actually increased incentives for field workers. We did not have paid vacation in the past. We offer paid vacation now, health benefits - you have to do whatever you can to try to attract the employees to you," Sireno said.

She added that the overall industry is starting to work with education institutions toward restoring the pipeline of skilled workers.

McMurry said a new AGC project to attract young workers is having an impact, and overall, the construction increases are good for the economy.

"Schools and hospitals still need to be built," McMurry said. "We still need to build some office space and hotels and retail and so forth. So what will continue to happen as the city grows is that the prices for those projects will go up slightly.

"And the responsibility that the construction industry has in the big picture is that we've got to do a much better job of attracting craft workers into our industry and we've got to keep them once they're there so they don't drift off to other sectors when there's a slight lull in activity," he said.

AGC has started an online marketing campaign to identify and attract construction workers. It regularly updates its Facebook page, Texas Construction Careers. Its website, texasconstructioncareers.com, is under construction; when active, it will publicize the AGC of America workforce development plan, listing places were craft education is available.