February 18, 2013

Construction industry facing skills shortage

Photo | Pablo Robles
Photo | Pablo Robles
Al Gogolin, senior vice president with Skanska, says construction firms need to entice the next generation.
Photo | Pablo Robles
Al Gogolin says high schoolers need to be informed of the benefits of a construction career.

The prolonged downturn in construction and Connecticut's aging workforce are creating a skills shortage that will become a serious problem as the industry recovers.

“As a result of the recession, there have been skilled workers who have left the construction industry and are never coming back,” said Al Gogolin, senior vice president with New Haven construction manager Skanska USA. “You can conceivably see where there will be a shortage once the work starts coming back.”

Connecticut already is showing signs of the skills shortage. Headhunters are sending firms such as Skanska resumes from other depressed areas all over the country of skilled laborers willing to relocate to New England. Small and large companies are losing their ability to mentor the younger workers, as the more skilled, older workers are doing work wherever they can get it.

“I wish there were more opportunity in this state for us to do mentoring,” Gogolin said. “You can never generate enough critical mass to do a great mentor-protégé program.”

The impact of the downturn has varied by trade but hit carpenters the most, said Jim McManus, principal of Glastonbury design-build firm The S/L/A/M Collaborative.

“There has been a contraction of the construction industry over the last two years,” McManus said. “As the economy recovers, we will continue to face a shortage of skilled labor in the trades.”

That recovery may be coming soon for construction, as forecasts suggest late 2013 and early 2014 appear to be the turnaround for the industry, said Steven Kononchik, district manager and vice president in Connecticut for Rhode Island general contractor Gilbane.

So far, Gilbane hasn't had any problem finding skilled workers in the region for its jobs in Connecticut, said Kononchik. The company requires all of its workers to train on their skills at least 30 hours annually.

“We have been talking about the graying of the workforce for 30 years,” Kononchik said.

The problem, he said, isn't as much finding skilled workers now as it is having enough work for the next generation of laborers to perfect their craft.

From 2007 to 2012, construction employment levels dropped 27 percent in Connecticut to its lowest levels since 1993, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over the same time period, the number of hours worked and the pay for laborers remained stagnant.

The best-of-the-best skilled trade laborers, who typically are older, haven't had any trouble finding work locally, said Don Shubert, executive director of the Connecticut Construction Industries Association. The problem is the second- and third-string laborers can't find enough work,

“As the industry advances, the skills of the workforce have to advance,” Shubert said.

Without opportunities to bring new people into the fold and advance their skills set, that could leave Connecticut without enough experienced workers once the best-of-the-best begin exiting the industry, Shubert said.

“That is going to come back to get us if we are not careful,” Shubert said.

Graduates from Waterbury-based Industrial Management & Training Institute are having a harder time finding jobs in the construction industry, said IMTI President Janice Shannon. Only six or seven graduates out of 10 are placed into jobs within one month of graduation, down from the school's typical 85 percent placement rate.

With fewer opportunities in the construction field, younger workers have sought out other opportunities in industries such as manufacturing, said McManus.

“To the extent they were able to find opportunities and were able to secure benefits, they likely did not return to construction,” McManus said.

With all the experienced laborers busily filling the jobs needed today, there still isn't time to bring the younger generation up to the skill set necessary for the future of the industry, McManus said.

“While I believe there will be great opportunity for young people in the future, their mentoring needs will be difficult to meet,” McManus said.

Skanska is working to bring youth back into the workforce by going into area high schools to let students know about the high-paying jobs available in construction, beyond just the labor aspects. The company also has programs where experienced workers can team with the younger generation to learn new skill sets.

However, Skanska's true mentoring programs are based out of larger cities such as Boston and New York where there's enough work for extended periods of time to have enough skilled workers around to train the next generation. That's difficult to set up in smaller markets such as Connecticut, Gogolin said, as the work is spread out throughout the state.

“We are trying to show these kids that there are opportunities in construction beyond swinging a hammer,” Gogolin said.

A skill shortage hasn't hit Skanska yet, Gogolin said. A company that size has the opportunity to bring in internal people from around the country or hire out-of-market skilled laborers.

“That hasn't been the case recently because there hasn't been a need,” Gogolin said.

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