Construction Company Heads Get Creative to Address Labor Shortage
When the downturn hit in 2008, there were thousands of layoffs in the construction industry as commercial and residential projects were put on hold. But years later, as the office, retail and housing markets have seen a comeback, the construction industry is now facing the problem of growing labor shortages.
Mike Dion, Chairman of the New Hampshire and Vermont chapter of the Associated Builders & Contractors (ABC), is experiencing firsthand the impacts caused by a lack of workers.
Dion owns three commercial companies in the New England area—Metro Walls, Inc., a commercial framing and drywall company; Exterior Designs, Inc., a commercial siding business; and Atlantic Prefab, Inc., which manufactures pre-finished exterior wall panels. He employs about 300 workers and several hundred subcontractors across all three companies.
“Finding full-time employees are where we’re having the hardest time,” Dion says. “If we could hire 50 more skilled workers tomorrow, we could put them all to work.”
Dion points out that overall, there is a construction boom going on in New England, mainly in the Boston area. (Dion is based about 50 miles from Boston.)
“It’s not only there but also spreading out into southern New Hampshire, Maine and into Vermont,” he says. “It’s the busiest I’ve seen it in 10 to 20 years.”
Dion believes pent-up demand from the recession is a big factor behind the current labor shortage.
“There were a lot of projects that were put on hold that people were thinking about and didn’t actually pull the trigger on until they felt good about the economy,” he says. “Then I think it let loose all at once. Plus, interest rates are still low. It’s a good time to build.”
Crafting a Greater Workforce
The labor shortage problem has become widespread and quite severe in some cities and states. In July 2017, the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) urged the federal government to help address increasing labor shortages in the construction industry by taking steps to provide more training for students and young adults.
“The need for more craft workers in fields like construction is growing every month,” Stephen Sandherr, Chief Executive Officer for AGC, said in a recent press release. “There is a correspondingly urgent need to put in place measures that can expand training opportunities for people
considering careers in construction.”
On a positive note, construction employment was up by 11.1 percent (2,800 jobs) in New Hampshire between June 2016 and 2017, according to AGC data. The state was among the top 10 in the nation for adding construction jobs. Between May and June 2017, New Hampshire added 600 jobs, culminating in 2.3 percent growth year-over-year. Again, the state also ranked among the top for construction job growth.
In the New England area, multifamily construction is particularly hot.
Dion’s companies alone are doing drywall or framing work for more than 2,000 units under construction.
“I’ve never seen multifamily apartment buildings being built like this before,” he says. “Some of these are 300, 400 and 500-unit complexes.”
Some of Metro Walls’ projects also include Benchmark Senior Living in Norwood, Mass., Fuse Cambridge—a luxury apartment complex in Cambridge, Mass., and the 600,000-square-foot corporate headquarters of Keurig Green Mountain in Burlington, Mass. The company also has worked on an industrial building for GE Aviation in Hooksett, N.H., and a 105-room Homewood Suites hotel in Nashua, N.H.
In August 2017, Metro Walls earned a national ranking from Walls & Ceilings Magazine’s 2017 “Top 50” list, which showcases the industry’s leading contractors in the interior and exterior wall and ceiling industry.
It Didn’t Happen Overnight
For his part, Dion estimates he started feeling the labor crunch for manpower about 18 months to two years ago.
“If you ask anybody in the commercial construction business if they’re busy, the answer is yes,” he says. “That’s such a radical change from five to seven years ago when it was all doom and gloom.”
Dion also points out that the labor shortage problem is not simply a lack of workers. It’s a lack of skilled workers that is the issue.
He estimates that 25 percent of his high school classmates went into the construction industry. Today, Dion believes that maybe less than 5 percent of high school graduates go into the construction trade.
In the short term, companies are paying skilled workers more money as an incentive.
“That seems to be the norm out there right now for construction workers,” Dion says. “We’re throwing money at people to get them to jump ship from where they are to come and work for us. But it’s not a long-term solution.”
Looking ahead, Dion echoes the sentiments of the AGC. He believes what needs to be done should begin in the high schools. He thinks that most people don’t realize that construction trades “are very good-paying careers.” As such, Dion’s companies are frequently involved in job fairs. They also visit vocational schools to try and help bring more students into the construction workforce.
“It seems like, right now, every student is being pushed to go to a four-year college,” he says. “If you don’t, you’ve failed. But there’s another option, and it’s a very good one—and that’s joining the construction trade.”