A few good journeymen: Why skilled tradespeople are so hard to find

By Emily Hamann

Anyone who has recently tried to retrofit a new restaurant or retail space, remodel a house, or even just hire a plumber has probably noticed there’s a lack of skilled tradespeople in Whatcom County. As unemployment recovered from the recession and the labor market got tighter, construction was one of the first sectors to feel the squeeze. And that has had ripple effects throughout every industry in the county.

“It’s like trying to find a one-eyed unicorn.”

That’s how Bobbi Kreider, president of Lynden Sheet Metal, describes the process of hiring experienced workers.

The 57-employee company does HVAC, plumbing and metal fabrication, and is always looking to fill positions.

Most difficult to find are HVAC installers and service technicians, journeyman plumbers and fabricators.

“We’ve done nationwide searches and found nothing,” Kreider said.

So, she’s had to get creative.

“We’re just going to grow our own,” she said. She’ll hire people with little to no experience, and train them up to advanced-level skills — a process that takes years.

Kreider said competition to keep workers is fierce. Companies have to monitor the wages every other company is offering, because they know employees can easily leave if another company is offering a higher wage.

“The wages have gone up, I would say, between 15-20 percent in the past three years,” Kreider said.

One cause of the problem is that fewer people are going into the trades.

“The schools have done kids a lot of disservice by teaching these kids that they have to go to college or they’re a failure,” Kreider said.

Kreider estimates that for every one person entering the trades, four people are retiring.

“The shame of it all is these trade jobs are paying well,” she said. “I’ve got people with 5-7 years experience making between $70,000-100,000 a year.”

The lack of workers means Lynden Sheet Metal can’t take on as many jobs as it would like to.

“We could’ve easily done more work had we had the bodies to do it,” Kreider said. Instead, their calendar fills up far in advance,

and this shortage of labor all across the trades has a compounding effect.

Kreider’s work on a job usually has to happen at the same time as the electrician’s. But there’s also a shortage of those.

“We’re limited by how much we can do because of the availability of electricians,” Kreider said.

Nobody sees that ripple effect more than Jeremy Carroll, vice president of construction for Dawson Construction.

“We see most of the shortage happening at the subcontractor level,” Carroll said. “It’s just taking longer for projects to finish because there’s just not enough qualified people onsite.”

Subcontractors are booked out sometimes six months or more in advance.

Any delays can delay the entire project — which can make it more expensive.

“It requires trades to work overtime, and the cost of construction goes up,” Carroll said.

Eventually, that can raise cost of the entire project, or push the price of the finished building higher.

“It’s a huge issue,” Rob Lee, executive director of the Building Industry Association of Whatcom County, said. “Not only attracting employees initially, but having them continue to show up is a huge issue.”

Lee said the problem has been going on for a couple years. It was the culmination of a number of different factors that led to the worker shortage.

During the recession, many established businesses closed. Fewer companies could get the money for new projects, so building stagnated for several years.

That means that during the recovery, pent up demand has kicked the industry into high gear.

Ironically, there are now fewer companies to work on all those projects.

During the recession, many experienced tradespeople chose to retire, or move on to other industries.

So today there are fewer experienced tradespeople who can apprentice new workers.

“You have a dearth of knowledge,” Lee said.

At the same time, fewer young people are entering the trades.

“For a generation or two they’ve been selling that a four-year education is absolutely the way to go,” Lee said.

Many high school woodshops were phased out in favor of computer labs, and other resources geared toward sending students to a university.

Lee is working on changing that. Last year, the BIAWC partnered with Bellingham Technical College to offer a course certifying students on entry-level construction and tradeskills. They thought that might give some students a taste of the industry and attract them to the trades. But it was tough sell.

Since so many companies are so desperate for workers, they’ll hire them with no experience and give them paid, on-the-job training.

Now Lee is looking to get students on board even younger, during high school, while they’re still deciding on a career path.

“There’s an awful lot of great jobs in the industry if you stick around,” Lee said. “You can make a significant wage.”

The skilled trades aren’t the only businesses that have seen their labor costs go up, however.

While some businesses are forced to raise wages to attract workers, every business is now legally forced to pay more into labor.

At the beginning of 2019, the minimum wage went up again, which had many businesses choose to not just give their lowest-paid employees a raise, but to bump up every step on the pay scale.

Plus there are new employee benefits. Businesses in 2018 had to begin paying for sick leave for workers.

Also at the top of this year, every employer had to start collecting and possibly paying into the state’s new family and medical leave insurance program.

The costs up front are minor — only a fraction of a percent of the payroll.

However, Eric Grimstead, advisor at Western Washington University’s Small Business Development Center, says there could be costs for businesses later on.

If business don’t begin planning now, they could be in trouble if their employees begin taking that leave once they’re eligible in 2020.

“The first step would be to try and develop some financial forecasting models,” Grimstead said.

He, and the other advisors at the SBDC, give free business consulting, and can help small businesses develop these models if they need it.

“We would recommend starting to try and work through as many of those what-if scenarios as possible,” Grimstead said.

Plan now, he advises, and start working out the impact on the business if an employee were to leave for a few months.

Grimstead advises that businesses start organizing for those unplanned, and planned — such as the next minimum wage increase — added labor costs as soon as possible.

Skilled trades also aren’t the only sector that has been impacted by the tight labor market.

Grimstead has talked to clients across industries who are feeling increased competition for workers, and are finding it difficult to attract good workers.

“Anecdotally, some clients are definitely feeling that pinch,” Grimstead said. “If it’s a competitor trying to poach another employers employees with higher pay or a better benefits package, certainly that is taking place.”

However there are things every business can do to help find good workers, without necessarily offering exorbitant salaries.

“What we’re seeing is people being a little more intentional about designing their pay packages,” Grimstead said.

But there are other things a company can look at adjusting if they want to find better workers.

That could mean offering a larger benefits package, or maybe just rethinking their time-off policies.

“They may need to adapt their culture and their historical norms to attract the workers that they want,” Grimstead said.

Many younger workers, for example, value their work-life balance.

They might also prefer the option to work remotely, or just have stability in scheduling, or more time off.

“We’re definitely seeing businesses look at: what does work look like? And how can we attract the workforce that we want,” Grimstead said.


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