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ARCHIVED  December 1, 1997

Shortage of workers slams area contractors

Wanted: construction workers.
Sounds simple enough. But there˜s more here than meets the eye. You bet there˜s a labor shortage in the construction industry in Colorado. In fact, almost all Northern Colorado building contractors will tell you it˜s a serious shortage.
But each one qualifies that by saying it˜s a shortage of skilled craftsmen: drywallers, masons, electricians, plumbers, pipefitters, painters, welders, etc.
"The amount of skilled labor, not just labor, but skilled labor, where someone is teaching someone how to continue a craft, is lacking," said Thomas E. Frame, president of Frame Construction Inc. in Greeley.
He recalled that about 15 years ago, he and a friend discussed how labor would be a problem in the construction industry in about a decade.
"About three or four years ago, we started seeing it happen," he said.
Why it˜s happening is not so difficult to understand. Many point to technology, the computer industry in particular, which has lured thousands upon thousands with high-paying careers. Others point to high schools and vocational-technical schools, which in the last decade have either eliminated or drastically reduced construction-related courses.
David Madone, president of Madone Constructors Inc. in Greeley, said unions are also at fault.
"I think it goes back to 15 years ago, when unions used to be real strong," Madone said. "Then companies started going from union to open shop, and they haven˜t been providing apprenticeship training. That˜s how I did my four-year apprenticeship as a brick layer. Through the unions. The unions dropped the ball, and companies haven˜t picked it up."
And what apprenticeship training there is often gets cut short simply because a worker who has put in six months or a year often chooses to go out on his own because the demand is there. This, Frame noted, just adds to the unskilled labor market.
"Carpenter, to me, is almost a lost art," said Tim VonTersch, part-owner and construction manager of Lifestyle Homes, which builds 100 homes annually in Northern Colorado. "There˜s not many of us left."
Like many businesses, construction has become a specialized business. No longer do workers get that ground-up experience that encompasses all facets of construction. Instead, specialized trades come in, do their thing, and move on to the next house.
"It˜s tough to find someone who can even cut a roof," VonTersch said. Nowadays, the roof is done in components — pre-made trusses — and the placesetters are given a diagram of how they should be placed. "As long as they can read, they can put a roof on, but they don˜t know why it˜s done the way it is.
"I see that as one of the biggest problems. The old-timers who used to teach, who actually taught how to build a house, aren˜t around anymore. Trade schools don˜t even teach it anymore."
VonTersch, like many of the other contractors, said he would like to see schools reinstitute construction classes. He˜s seen the difference education can make.
"In the ˜70s, we had a few guys go through that program. They were good; you could tell they went through the school. The field knowledge can be learned later. When they were asked to do something, they knew what to do."
Like cutting stairs. Those with the knowledge can cut out a set of stairs, apply it and put it on.
"Guys who haven˜t learned get out the calculator and the book to see how to do it," he said. "Their idea of making it work is to take a 2-by-12, lay it out, and if it doesn˜t fit, throw it in the trash and go to the next board."
Attracting a skilled labor force takes money. And the cost of labor "is going through the roof," said Randy King of King Contracting in Loveland. "In order to get anybody, you have to pay the big bucks, and that˜s driving the cost of construction up."
King said he can˜t get a laborer to start for less than $10, with skilled labor pushing $18 an hour.
"It˜s a wage-earners˜ market," he said, explaining that workers sometimes offer their services at another company for $1 more an hour. King conceded that˜s how he got two of his best workers.
Terry Drahota, president of Drahota Construction Co. in Fort Collins, concurred that wages are increasing, and in just the last seven or so months, by as much as 10 percent to 20 percent.
The labor shortage is also affecting construction schedules.
"The jobs are taking a little longer to get done," Drahota said. He pointed out, however, that it˜s new construction companies that are feeling the brunt of the labor shortage.
"We˜ve been in business 24 years. we˜re getting special attention paid by subcontractors. The newer construction companies are really suffering from this. They don˜t have long-time relationships (with subcontractors) established. They can˜t even get bids from subcontractors.
"We work with some of the larger drywall companies in the metro area," Drahota added. "They˜ve told us if they had 50 more drywall people tomorrow morning, they could put them to work."
Construction projects across the state affect construction schedules — and labor shortages — everywhere, said Ron Norby, vice president of Hensel Phelps.
"If you˜re looking at northeastern Colorado, the biggest job (right now) is in Sterling for the Department of Corrections," he said. "As that goes through the various stages of construction, we will see shortages in the crafts, depending on what craft is needed."
Norby said the construction labor shortage is happening nationwide, but appears to be "a little more acute" in Colorado.
Contractors now say construction has become a year-round business, where once everyone pushed to get jobs done before the dead of winter.
Trish Bloemker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, said there is a need, nationwide, for 250,000 new construction workers annually.
"We˜re not even scratching the surface," she said.
A 1997 national survey by ABC showed that labor shortages had increased 9 percent overall since the 1996 report. Colorado respondents indicated that the highest shortages were for electricians, iron workers, pipefitters, plumbers and sheet-metal workers.
Improving the image of construction and showing what a lucrative career choice it can be is among top goals of ABC, she said. Hand in hand with that is a program designed to return construction classes to schools.
Mark Latimer, director of education and safety, explained that as interest decreased in learning about construction, enrollment in these courses also decreased. And that˜s the primary reason construction classes have been either eliminated or greatly reduced in school curriculums nationwide.
ABC hopes to change that, however, by working to improve the image of the construction industry and through the national School-to-Work Program, designed to give students from elementary school on up knowledge about different careers and what is needed to pursue them.
The biggest focus is in high school, where interested students can take a voc-tech curriculum that essentially is the first year of a four-year apprentice program.
As King noted, the construction industry is on a roller coaster. Right now, everyone is enjoying the ride up to the top. But what happens when the roller coaster begins its downward spiral? Will there still be a shortage of skilled workers?
Yes, said ABC˜s Latimer. The average age of an electrician, for example, is 37. Once these workers hit retirement, who will replace them?

Wanted: construction workers.
Sounds simple enough. But there˜s more here than meets the eye. You bet there˜s a labor shortage in the construction industry in Colorado. In fact, almost all Northern Colorado building contractors will tell you it˜s a serious shortage.
But each one qualifies that by saying it˜s a shortage of skilled craftsmen: drywallers, masons, electricians, plumbers, pipefitters, painters, welders, etc.
"The amount of skilled labor, not just labor, but skilled labor, where someone is teaching someone how to continue a craft, is lacking," said Thomas E. Frame, president of Frame Construction Inc. in Greeley.
He recalled that about…

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