Construction workers getting harder to find in northern Nevada as need increases
Craig Willcut started his career in the construction industry as a dump truck driver. He’s spent the last 17 years working as president of United Construction.
Willcut’s rise from blue-collar truck driver to white-collar manager involved a variety of intermediary positions, including union carpenter, project manager and superintendent. It’s a path he hopes more tradesmen follow so they can fill the industry’s need for more highly qualified workers.
The shortage of skilled construction labor is an ever-present issue for United Construction and many other northern Nevada companies. It’s compounded by a rebounding economy that’s spurred new residential and commercial construction, and senior-level employees such as Willcut moving ever closer to retirement age.
“It’s very difficult — that is the bottom line,” Willcut says. “We are in a very difficult place in identifying, locating and hiring qualified employees just because of supply and demand. We have great people working for us, and we are having success finding others, but there just are not as many qualified candidates out there.”
Nevada’s construction workforce totaled 76,900 employees in December of 2016, the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation reports. Christopher Robison, supervising economist for DETR’s research and analysis bureau, says about 80 percent of the state’s workforce lives in Clark County. Locally, there were 11,515 workers employed in the construction industry in Washoe and Storey counties in 2014. By 2024 local industry employment is projected to grow 52 percent to 17,506 employees.
Question is: Where are all these new workers going to come from?
The recession emptied a great deal of water out of the pool, and the lure of good-paying technical and computer jobs is further draining the pond when it comes to the career choices of younger workers.
Willcut (who says he has no plans to retire anytime soon) hopes more tradesmen work their way up the ranks as he did. Although a college degree in construction management or similar area of study can speed up entry into management, it’s not an absolute requirement, he says.
“Having a college education is good, but having field experience is better,” he says. “There is a path for non-college-educated construction workers to advance — and they have a better grasp on how things get built because they have done it. It wasn’t learned out of a book.”
Statewide, Nevada added 7,200 construction jobs in 2016, DETR reports. But it’s one thing to add eager young carpenters to the company payroll and quite another to add skilled superintendents and project managers who have a decade or more of real-world experience.
Those issues came to a head when United Construction opened its Sacramento office in June of 2016. A few field hands transferred to the new northern California office, Willcut says, but most of the new office’s 10 employees were scouted and hired using recruitment firms.
“That is pretty much our single source of finding people right now,” Willcut says. “The time it takes to go through all those resumes and pick out the qualified people — (the firms) are earning their fee. If we used someone in-house (for recruitment), we would probably need two people.”
United opened its California office to secure more work in the Golden State, and it’s paying dividends with more than $80 million in work currently under contract in California, Willcut says.
Workforce issues aren’t just at the management and professional levels of the industry. Johnny Skowronek, vice president of operations with Square One Solutions, says workers are hard to come by in all aspects of the construction trades. Electricians, plumbers, HVAC technicians and other skilled trades are near impossible to find locally, Skowronek says.
The only way to fill open positions in northern Nevada, he adds, has been to scour other markets.
“For a recent round of skilled trades hiring, we only posted ads in markets that were outside of our geographical area,” he says. We advertised in Phoenix, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Bakersfield, Riverside, San Francisco, Sacramento and many other California markets. We have had great success encouraging people to move to Reno for work.”
Advanced manufacturing companies such as Tesla and Panasonic, and many others that now call northern Nevada home, have been extremely beneficial for the region on the whole — but they only exacerbate workforce issues within the construction trades, Skowronek notes.
In days past, construction was a viable entry into the workforce for younger unskilled workers. Today, younger workers eschew the physical demands of the industry and the grind of working outside in the elements for the perks of indoor production and manufacturing jobs with good pay and strong benefits.
“I have not seen one single industry that isn’t growing at a breakneck speed and trying to hire people; everyone is desperately trying to hire right now,” Skowronek says. “But I fear the most for construction. A lot of the manufacturing/production jobs are much easier from a physical standpoint, and most of our younger generation is going to opt for those indoor jobs.”
Lebo Newman, managing partner of Signature Landscapes, also has extended his reach to find new workers, especially for crew leaders and other management positions. Signature Landscapes saw peak employment of 260 workers last summer but expects to employ upwards of 300 this year summer.
The company also has advertised in California, Arizona and Idaho, as well as various horticulture schools in other parts of the country. Signature Landscapes also offers relocation bonuses for certain candidates.
“We have gotten a lot more creative about where we are looking and how we are doing it,” Newman says. “We have been able to find people and fulfill all our contracts, it has just been a whole lot more intense to find them and stay fully staffed.”
As of April 7, Washoe County and the cities of Reno and Sparks received over 350 complaints about non-essential businesses remaining open. Compliance staff is investigating and giving initial courtesy notices — no citations have yet been given.