After years of shrinking, Topeka construction firms are starting to grow, but some say finding the right workers is a challenge.
David Howard, president and CEO of Koss Construction Co., said his business often has to hire people who don't know much about road construction and train them on the job.
"We always fill the slots. It's just not always with the right people," he said.
Doing that wastes new hires' time because they have to do low- skill tasks like carrying tools until they learn to do the job they were hired for, Howard said. While they eventually do get up to speed, it takes longer than it would if they had basic training before starting, he said, because the foremen have other responsibilities too.
"The training part is pretty low on his list of priorities," he said.
About 202 construction jobs were vacant in the region including Shawnee County at some point during 2013, according to the Kansas Department of Labor's vacancy survey. The survey only measures how many jobs were vacant at a certain point, meaning someone likely filled them eventually. Statewide, about 923 construction jobs were vacant.
Kansas had about 54,000 jobs in construction as of December, according to statistics from the Kansas Department of Labor. While that was higher than December 2012, it remained well below the 65,100 construction jobs the state had on the eve of the Great Recession in December 2007. Employment bottomed out at 51,900 in January 2011 and has had a rocky path to climb since.
Bob Totten, executive vice president of the Kansas Contractors Association, said the organization doesn't keep statistics about demand for workers, but some members have complained they can't find enough trained people. That can place businesses in bidding wars for the relatively few workers with the right skills, driving up the cost of construction for the homeowner, business or government agency hiring a contractor, he said.
"It's not that we want cheap labor, it's that these people need to be trained," he said.
Demand is projected to grow. The Kansas Department of Labor predicted about 12,966 construction jobs will be available in the state's northeast region, which includes Shawnee County, in 2020. That is about a 1.4 percent increase from the 11,342 construction jobs available in 2010 -- higher than the rate of growth predicted for employment in the region in general.
Statewide, the number of construction jobs is projected to rise to 65,652 in 2020. If those projections are accurate, only a few hundred more Kansans would be employed in construction than were before the recession, but that doesn't mean the jobs will be easy to fill, contractors said.
Greg Hoglund, vice president of plant administration for BRB Contractors, said the company lost experienced workers during the recession, when employment at BRB shrank from 400 people to about 100 people. The problem is that it can't always rehire those workers because they moved to a different sector or retired, he said.
Hoglund said the company hasn't had much trouble filling jobs in recent months, but he thinks it will get harder.
"We haven't had quite so much of a struggle, but it's going to be a struggle," he said.
Brian Turmail, spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America, estimated 100,000 construction workers nationwide left the industry in 2013 to take other jobs or to retire. Turmail was one of the AGC representatives visiting Topeka on Thursday to announce their ideas for dealing with what they predict will be a nationwide shortage of construction workers. Among them are increasing funding and flexibility for training programs.
"Unless we act, the construction industry in Kansas and across the country are going to be facing worker shortages pretty shortly," he said.
That could be a greater problem for states like Kansas than for those who have higher unemployment rates, Turmail said.
"The job market is already pretty tight to start with," he said.
Recruiting young people to construction can be difficult because the job often involves traveling for long periods to follow the work, Totten said, and other industries are recruiting from the same applicant pool. He also said he believes people are less willing to work than they were in the past.
Demographics also are a concern as the Baby Boom generation nears retirement. Hoglund said many of BRB's workers are nearing the end of their careers.
"We've definitely got over 50 percent that are 50 years or older," he said.
Construction was once a favorite field for young men, Hoglund said, but in recent decades young people have shifted their focus toward jobs requiring a college degree. Getting them interested again requires changing perceptions that construction is a dangerous, undesirable job, he said.
"It's a gratifying industry, where you build something and you get to see it," he said.
The problem isn't always that people aren't willing to apply for construction jobs, Howard said. Many people believe construction relies on manual labor and doesn't require much education, he said, but the sector has added more technology to increase productivity -- meaning it needs fewer workers than it did a few decades ago, but those workers have to have more skills.
"The public wants more and more for less and less and they want it faster and faster," he said.
Original headline: Worker 'shortage' ongoing for local construction sector ; Contractors cite difficulty hiring skilled workers
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