Construction firms struggle to find qualified craft workers

Bricklayers, carpenters and laborers hardest positions to fill new survey finds

Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. says construction of its 32-story office tower in downtown Milwaukee will top out during the first half of 2016.

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 10:58 am

The construction industry has gone from not having enough work, to not having enough workers, according to the results of an industry-wide survey released today by the Associated General Contractors of America.

Construction of a $450 million, 32-story office tower at Northwestern Mutual’s headquarters campus towers over downtown Milwaukee.
Construction of a $450 million, 32-story office tower at Northwestern Mutual’s headquarters campus towers over downtown Milwaukee.

More than 1,500 construction firms nationwide responded to this year’s survey, which found construction firms are having the hardest time filing hourly craft positions, which make up the bulk of the workforce.

This comes at a time when demand for construction continues to grow across the country. Out of the metropolitan areas surveyed, two-thirds are expanding in their construction activity.

The Great Recession hit the construction industry especially hard. The Wisconsin construction sector lost nearly 44,000 jobs between 2006 and 2012.

Major projects, including Northwestern Mutual’ s 1 million-square-foot headquarters project in downtown Milwaukee, the new Milwaukee Bucks Arena in the Park East corridor and dozens of retail and mixed use projects across the region have shovels back in the ground.

The Couture, a $122 million high rise luxury apartment tower in downtown Milwaukee is set to begin in 2017.

In Wisconsin, 75 percent of respondents to the Associated General Contractors of America survey said they are having a hard time finding hourly craft positions, while 46 percent are having trouble filling salaried office positions.

Bricklayers, carpenters and laborers are the hardest positions to fill in Wisconsin, according to the survey. Specific salaried positions Wisconsin firms are having trouble filling are engineers (56 percent) and project managers and supervisors (52 percent).

About 63 percent of those surveyed believe it will continue to be hard to hire craft workers over the next year, while 17 percent believe hiring will become more difficult over the next 12 months.

Despite the difficulty in finding workers, 39 percent of firms said they have increased base pay rates for craft workers, while 35 percent said they would not consider increasing pay or benefits. Thirteen percent of firms have provided incentives or bonuses to craft workers.

Firms have supplemented the shortage of workers with overtime, career-building programs through local high schools or colleges and used subcontractors.

Nearly everyone surveyed is unhappy with the quality of craft workers they are finding with 42 percent of those asked saying the pipeline is poorly trained and 58 percent of people saying the training is “fair.”

“More career and technical education programs would go a long way,” said Stephen Sandherr, the association’s chief executive officer during a conference call. “We need to stop saying the only path to success is a four-year degree.”

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