Tradespeople scarce as building boom rolls on

Building industry groups, local tech colleges working to promote trades to high schoolers in the hopes of boosting critically low numbers

BTC President Gerald Pumphrey said the school is working to develop new programs that will increase the number of tradespeople it graduates.

   With Bellingham and Whatcom County officials predicting nearly 32,000 new residents moving to the city between 2002 and 2022, few in the construction industry are worried about a shortage of building projects.
   And with long-term projections by the Employment Securities Department estimating there should be around 6,400 annual job openings in the state’s construction industry over the next 10 years, not too many people are worried about a shortage of jobs either.
   What some in the industry are concerned about, however, is finding enough people — especially skilled candidates — to fill the plethora of positions.
   “There’s no question there’s a shortage of workers,” said Bill Quehrn, executive director of the Building Industry Association of Whatcom County. “For the last 10 years, the incentive for young people to go into the trades has not been there, due to societal issues. That’s really had an impact on the industry in the number of younger folks, 25 to 40 years old, we have as skilled trades and craftspeople.”
   As with other professions, like teaching and nursing, the demand for workers in the building industry is being fueled, in part, by an aging workforce, with many tradespeople nearing or entering retirement.
   “Because the average age of journeypeople is between 40 and 54, they’re just falling off,” said Sandra Olson, president of the Construction Industry Training Council. “It’s going to be very, very tough for contractors to find good, skilled people to meet their needs.”
   While an increased demand for workers may not be noticed by contractors and construction companies for another five years or so, there are others who could notice a shortage of tradespeople in the near future.
   Current renters and home owners may start to notice, or already be noticing, a shortage of folks like plumbers and electricians. Fewer tradespeople, they’ll notice, may not only delay projects around the house but also increase the cost of services, due to simple supply and demand.
   A demand for residential and commercial building coupled with a lack of people to perform construction could have an impact on local economies, said Bellingham Technical College President Gerald Pumphrey.
   “It could introduce delays to the building process,” he said. “People who wanted to start a business couldn’t start as soon as they wanted. If there was a backlog of residential building, people wouldn’t be buying furniture and the kind of things they buy when they buy a new home.”
   Steve Koch, business manager for Laborer’s Local #276 and president of the Northwest Washington Building & Construction Trades Council, said the droves of workers leaving the construction industry for retirement in the near future will come at an inauspicious time.
   “This is happening at a time when not only is there quite a bit of growth happening but a good share of the original infrastructure in this country is also needing to be redone.”
   A shortage of skilled workers in the future could pose safety issues.
   “You could have the greatest engineers in the world but if things aren’t built properly you could have some really serious public-safety problems,” Koch said.
According to a recent survey by the Washington State Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board, among firms attempting to hire construction workers, 65 percent had a difficult time finding qualified job applicants.
   Local educators and construction officials say students who receive on-the-job and vocational and technical training have no problems finding good jobs. The problem has been finding young people who want to enter the construction trades.
“We’ve had a generation or so of people who’ve thought you had to go to college to make anything of yourself,” Koch said.
   Quehrn believes that fewer youths are looking at trade jobs because they’ve had a limited exposure to them in school.
   In Washington state, he said, schools are spending too much time preparing children for the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) and reducing the number of electives being offered.
   “Students today may not have a chance to sample things like drama, arts, performing arts, wood shop or metal shop,” he said. “That puts a squeeze on the number of students coming out of school into the trade schools.”
It also hasn’t helped, Olson said, that movies and TV shows frequently portray construction workers in a negative light. Oftentimes, they’ll be depicted as roughnecks or uneducated.
   “We need to get the message out to parents that this is a good vocation for their children,” she said. “They don’t know about the good wages in construction and I think it’s viewed as a lesser job.”
   In recent years, construction industry officials have been increasing their efforts to expose more students to the building trades and inform them of the different avenues of getting there.
   Traditionally, people enter the construction field as helpers and work their way up with on-the-job training. Many also enter after attending technical-school programs, like Bellingham Technical College’s Civil Engineering program, Building Construction Management program and Electricians program.
   Still others choose to enroll in apprenticeship programs through the union-led Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee and non-union Construction Industry Training Council. Both programs typically require three to five years of classroom training and on-the-job experience under a mentor in crafts like carpentry, welding, pipefitting and plumbing.
   Liz Evans, northern district manager for the Associated General Contractors of Washington (AGC), said AGC officials and other organizations consistently attend career fairs and work with high-school counselors to keep them abreast of building-trades trends, wages and routes students can follow to gain access to the construction industry.
   This summer, the AGC is co-sponsoring “Construction Math Workshops for Teachers,” in which master craftsmen in King, Pierce, Skagit and Whatcom counties will work with teachers to show how math is used in the construction industry.
   AGC also has a program, “If I Had a Hammer,” in which master craftsmen work with fifth-graders and build an actual home.
   “It all just goes back to helping our teachers, counselors and parents get interested in the industry,” Evans said. “It’s not that we have a lack of training, it’s that we have a lack of interested people in the construction industry and a lack of awareness of the construction industry as a viable, life-sustaining job.”
   Locally, however, some are not so sure Bellingham’s construction boom will be as big as anticipated, and foresee other challenges in the building industry.
Quehrn said one major obstacle could be the availability of buildable land.
“If the decisions by local government to allocate land are not made to accommodate the population we expect, (housing) prices will go out of sight and people won’t be able to afford them,” he said.
   Rising labor taxes and permitting and inspection fees, he said, are also hurting small construction companies. If costs continue to rise, he believes some owners may not be able to employ workers year-round and will simply turn to on-call sources at places
like Labor Ready.
   “The costs are horrendous,” said Audrey Borders, president of Borders & Son Quality Roofing. “I think we’re going to lose more builders than we’re going to gain.”
   Koch is among those who believe the building flurry will continue, even though there isn’t much commercial and industrial activity at the moment.
   “I think there’s tremendous opportunity in the trades,” he said. “We’ve seen considerable growth in this area and even when you have residential building, you’re going to need the waterlines, sewerlines, roads, bridges, schools and places of worship that go along with it.”



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