College seeks solution to labor shortage; Builders note range of reasons for problem; HOWARD BUSINESS


Take a walk down a cul-de-sac called Summer Sky Path, and new homes are going up almost everywhere you look.

Come closer, onto Lot No. 20 and you will find William Gmeinwieser, owner of Horizons Unlimited Home Improvements Inc., hammering shingles onto roofs because he can't find skilled workers to do the job for him. "If I could find some help, I wouldn't have to be out here doing this," he said.

To solve a labor shortage faced by Gmeinwieser and others like him throughout the county, Howard Community College is taking a closer look at the problem and how to solve it.

"We're just in the beginning stages of trying to figure out, are there adjustments to our curricula?" said Patty Keeton, executive director of work force development at the college.

In the school's "Progress Report 2000," which addresses the Commission of the Future of Howard Community College's recommendations for improving the school, one initiative is to address the construction industry's needs.

To do that, the college held a symposium where those in the industry, including Gmeinwieser, spoke about the shortage. Keeton said the process would continue with a closer look at what is needed and possible solutions.

"We're not yet at the solution stage," Keeton said. "We're at the this-is-the-problem stage."

And those in the industry will tell you, a problem exists.

In a February survey by the National Association of Homebuilders, about 85 percent of the 353 builders who participated noted a serious shortage of carpenters. About 78 percent said the shortage extended to framing crews, and about 65 percent more roofers are needed.

For Gmeinwieser, who is down to eight employees for his Howard County business, that often means juggling the jobs of laborer and manager. "That's the hardest part, when I'm trying to run a business and do this at the same time." he said. "It's almost impossible."

And because the shortage has also dripped into the world of plumbers and electricians, other tradesmen are feeling the pinch.

Tom Eckert, owner of Fireside Plumbing Inc. in Clarksville, said a project he was working on last month in Montgomery County was halted because a carpenter couldn't be found to finish one of the steps.

About 63 percent of the builders surveyed said plumbers are in short supply, and about 59 percent said the same thing about electricians.

Some business owners, such as Doug Williams of C. D. Williams Electric Co. in Howard County, blame the local shortage in part on the closing of Howard County Vocational Technical School, which was phased out, starting in 1996.

"They're not training people to be electricians like they used to," Williams said.

That's where Howard Community College comes in.

Though no recommendations have been made on what the next step will be, Keeton said a solution could be to form a consortium with local companies.

"Our role is really one we're inventing," Keeton said.

But training aside, many in the industry argue that the stigma attached to being a construction worker has been enough to keep people out of the business. "I just want the construction trade not to be treated like we're beneath people anymore," said Gmeinwieser.

Others are concerned that, in the age of technology, fewer workers want to enter a trade. "Everyone wants to get into computers and no one wants to get their hands dirty anymore," said Eckert, who learned plumbing in the Army about three decades ago.

If they can find employees, company owners said, it is often tricky to find ones who are dedicated and hard-working.

Charles Aud, owner of C.E.A. Contracting in Mount Airy and president of the Remodelers Council of the Homebuilders Association of Maryland, runs a one-man show and uses subcontractors for his projects. He said that often when a smaller company finds a good worker, larger companies snatch that employee.

"As soon as someone's qualified or as soon as someone's out there that's available, they're swallowed up," Aud said.

Larger companies, may be feeling the pinch in different ways.

Harry L. "Chip" Lundy Jr., chairman of Patriot Homes Inc. in Columbia and president of the Williamsburg Group, said his homebuilding companies employ nearly 100 full- and part-time workers and built more than 400 homes in 1999.

The company uses several subcontractors, whom Lundy said have come through during the labor pinch. But because the subcontractors are so busy, the amount of time it takes to build a house has increased by about 30 days.

"That's how we're noticing it," he said. "It just takes us a little bit longer to build a house."

And consumers may notice the shortage in yet another place -- their pocketbooks.

"Because the labor is so thin and it's hard to find people," said Aud, "it is increasing the price of doing the work."

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