Construction workers wanted With development on the rise, contractors scramble to find help; Youth not choosing field; Industry leaders blame lack of early recruitment, training


The deep freeze on development seems a distant memory, with construction sites throughout the state bustling once more.

But finding workers to lay brick, fit pipes, saw wallboard, install sheet metal and wire buildings poses a dilemma for contractors: They can't fill jobs fast enough -- or at all.

Contractors have been forced to turn down jobs or work double shifts to meet deadlines. They've borrowed competitors' workers, hired temporary labor and sought help in other cities.

"It is a terrible problem, and it's going to get worse," said Ann Kurlander, co-owner with husband Marty of 25-year-old Kurlander Electric Inc., which needs at least three more full-time electricians and helpers. "I can't remember ever having this much difficulty.

"For whatever reason, it doesn't seem like the construction industry is attracting enough good young people to go into the trade," said Kurlander. "Just why that is, we haven't been able to figure out."

It's a familiar lament, coming with equal intensity from contractors here and elsewhere -- South Florida, central Ohio, Austin, Texas, Milwaukee and Spokane, Wash.

Contractors blame a decline in early recruitment and training, as society has come to value white-collar work over hard-hat jobs seen as physically demanding and dirty.

In part, the industry has never fully recovered from the labor drain of the last recession, when commercial building came to a near halt and construction unemployment rose to 17 percent. Between 1989 and 1992, the number of workers nationally dropped from 5.1 million to 4.4 million, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says. Many of the casualties were highly skilled and experienced tradespeople, electricians, carpenters, masons.

"We saw a lot of quality people leave the industry, where they got out of the construction business and went into the service sector, retail or manufacturing," said James Kee, president of the Baltimore chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors and vice president of Clark Construction Group. "These people didn't return."

Since then, a healthier economy has spurred demand for workers, as hospitals and schools expand and new homes and office parks sprout throughout the region. Last year, the industry employed 5.4 million nationwide.

But turnover is high; the industry must replace an average 240,000 workers each year, labor statistics show. Skilled workers, on average, have grown older, while fewer young people want to learn a trade.

Working with the crew

At his busiest, Ed Cluster, president of 20-year-old Ed Cluster Electrical Contractor Inc., has worked eight-hour shifts alongside his crew, squeezing in administrative work in the early morning and late evening at his Finksburg office.

"I've got people calling me every day begging me to bid work," said Cluster. "The past year and a half, I could get all the work I needed to keep 20 guys busy. But I couldn't get the people. We are losing people hand over fist to other industries."

A February survey by the National Center for Construction Education and Research showed that the severe shortage of craft workers throughout the country has not improved since June. More than 70 percent of contractors who hire HVAC technicians, plumbers, carpenters, sheet metal workers, electricians and masons need workers.

The shortage is being felt in both nonunionized and unionized companies, which used to provide most of the training and do most of the work but only handle about 20 percent of all jobs, said Herbert R. Northrup, professor emeritus of management at Wharton School of Business.

Today, many young people -- even those without college aspirations -- no longer consider construction an option.

"If you run an ad in the paper, you may get two phone calls for helpers," said Frank X. Avena, president of the drywall division of MacKenzie, O'Conor, Piper & Flynn Construction Corp. "Years ago, your phone would ring off the wall. Most parents these days want their children to go to college. They don't want them in construction."

Bad impressions

And the students' own impressions of construction: dirty, tedious, requiring no skills.

In a 1993 Jobs Rated Almanac survey of desirable career choices, construction worker ranked nearly last, just ahead of migrant farmer and fisherman.

"It's the perception based on what everyone sees driving down the street," said Kee. "They see a highway project and a guy pouring concrete. It looks like hard work, and it can be hard work. Nobody is going to say the physical aspect has been alleviated, but there's a bigger demand on intelligence and skills of the workers as well."

Technology and advances in equipment and materials have made life easier both in the field and on the administrative end. Some contractors have computers in trailers on job sites. And standardized training programs, such as apprenticeships run by the Associated Builders, allow trainees to transport skills across state lines.

Career path

Construction can offer a future to those with drive and dedication, a chance to move up from helper to foreman or even owner of a company, contractors say. For journeymen tradespeople, average salaries can range from $35,000 for a mason and $39,000 for a carpenter to $55,000 for a superintendent and $75,000 for a chief estimator.

"We can't wait until high school for kids to hear about the opportunities in construction," said Mike Henderson, executive director of the Associated Builders in Baltimore. "They need to hear it in grade school."

ABC has run an apprenticeship program since the late 1950s and currently has 270 trainees working during the day and attending classes at night. Now, the group is trying to reach women and minorities and children as early as middle school and even talking about bringing career talks to the elementary schools.

New program

In the meantime, the group is focusing on its latest effort, which is growing in popularity nationally, the school-to-work apprenticeship.

Students start four-year apprenticeships in high school, rather than after graduation.

Twenty-two seniors are now enrolled at five high schools in the city and Baltimore County, spending the year learning in the classroom and on the job. About 100 juniors have applied. Once accepted, a student is matched with a contractor and becomes an apprentice.

School-to-work guarantees permanent jobs to students who maintain their attendance and grades.

Still, demand from contractors far outweighs the supply of students, says Michelle Taylor Butt, ABC's education director.

At Western School of Technology and Environmental Science in Catonsville, about a dozen students who want to be plumbers, carpenters and HVAC technicians donned hard hats and followed instructors through the site of a new gymnasium under construction at the school.

"A lot of people look down on manual labor," said senior David Handy, 18, adding that he too, had misconceptions at first. "My first impression of plumbing was a guy with his pants falling down fixing a sink. But these guys are very knowledgeable of their trades and other things.

"I've always thought it was interesting how you put structures together and always liked working with my hands. You can see your own handiwork, and seeing the finished product gives you a good feeling."

A summer job last year had junior Mike Kesecker fixing air-conditioning units in spots as varied as rooftops and medical labs.

"I couldn't sit in an office all day long," said Kesecker, 17. "When we'd ride by the building, I'd say, 'I worked on that unit up there.' "

More students sought

Student apprentices who've been linked with Cluster Electric have proved dependable and committed, Cluster said. And he could use more.

"A lot of kids are mechanically inclined. They're good with their hands," he said. "We need to get to them somehow. We can't take the kids that flunk out. We can't make it on that."

He's seen the reluctance firsthand. His own sons, a 17-year-old helper and an 18-year-old apprentice electrician, tell him they have no interest in taking over his business.

"They say, 'I'm not going to work the hours you work, Dad,' " Cluster said.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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