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Retirements sap building industry

U. Earl Dunn

A few weeks ago, two longtime construction superintendents at Reno-based Q&D Construction, Inc., hung up their hard hats, grabbed their 401(k) investments and walked out the door for the last time.

While Q&D officials wished the two health and happiness in their retirement years, they had mixed feelings about the event.

“It’s killing us,” commented Sheila Hlubecek, communications director for the firm.

“These are huge losses and we are quite alarmed about the trend.”

Hlubecek says the company was losing its most experienced superintendent who had 45 years in the industry and another with 30 years of experience.

She said the company and, indeed, the entire construction trades industry is quite concerned because there are not enough people flowing into the industry to make up the workforce shortage.

“We are not seeing enough new, promising apprentices coming into the system to take over from the more capable craftsmen who will move up to fill the supervisory positions,” she says.

Q&D is not alone.

The Associated General Contractors, the nation’s largest and oldest construction trade association, estimates that by the year 2008, there will be a shortage of 1 million construction trades workers in the U.S.

Justin Potter, communications director for the AGC’s chapter in Reno, says the average skilled construction worker today is approximately 48 years old.

This compares to an average age just two decades ago of the mid to upper 30s.

Clearly, he says, the workforce is aging, and too few are showing interest in entering the construction trades industry.

The homebuilding industry, too, is experiencing shortages.

Robert G.

Jones, outgoing executive officer for the Builders Association of Northern Nevada, says all of the construction trade associations are setting their sights on the schools to help foster a renewed interest among students in the business.

“There’s no doubt about it,” he says.

“There has long been a stigma attached to our industry.

It’s perceived as pure blue collar and seen by some as jobs one can get if they don’t make it through college with a four-year degree in mathematics or computer science.

Many of these key positions in both the homebuilding and the general construction trades industry do pay quite well.

A lot of your journeymen make $60,000 a year or more.”

The AGC and the homebuilders groups recognize that reaching out to students at an early age may provide one of the answers in creating a steady labor pool flow into the construction trades.

“The AGC did a survey about a decade ago and discovered that by the fifth grade, students will begin to think about the kind of careers that are out there,” says AGC’s Potter.

“When we surveyed a group of fifth grade students in the early 1990s, we were stunned to learn that the construction trades industry ranked next to last, right above the adult entertainment business.”

Kids, he says, may not make up their minds about what career they will pursue at the fifth grade level, “… but we’ve discovered that they will eliminate certain options. What we are doing today is to at least get them to keep their objectivity when it comes to our industry.”

As a result, the AGC teamed up with Scholastic, Inc., the nation’s premier educational materials publishing company.

Together, they developed supplemental educational kits across the country to be provided free of charge to teachers.

The kits teach students about the many different careers in construction and do so in a hands-on and hopefully fun manner.

The problem, say both Potter and Jones, is getting teachers to agree to participate.

“The school districts are not doing enough in this regard,” says Jones.

Part of the reason is budgets are being trimmed each and every year.

Another reason is that much of the classroom focus is preparing students for college and that leaves little room for curriculum that shows how to operate heavy equipment in road building, or the proper use of a nail gun to affix plywood to a wood frame.

“We’ve experienced some success here in the Reno/Sparks area with our programs,” says Potter.

“We are reaching out to high school guidance counselors.We’ve also been successful in getting some schools to offer elective courses.

An introduction to construction technology course is already being offered at Wooster, Reed, Galena and North Valleys High Schools.”

Another source is a charter high school devoted solely to students interested in a career in the construction trades industry.

The Academy for Career Education (ACE) in Sparks allows students to obtain their high school diploma while learning about construction.

ACE students help build one house each school year and, when completed, the houses are sold and the proceeds returned to the following year’s program.

Mark Sullivan, assistant executive director for the Reno office of the AGC, says the biggest needs today are for carpenters, laborers, operating engineers and cement masons.

Apprentice training programs are counted heavily upon to supply the steady stream needed to fill such jobs.

Journeymen in such fields can expect to earn more than between $20 to $25 an hour plus fringe benefits that are under agreement with the various construction trade unions.

Some key positions, such as cost estimators and construction managers, can pull down annual wages approaching $60,000 a year or more.

“I am aware of one 18-year-old ACE student who attends school, then works for one of the construction trades firm that pays him $10 an hour,” says Sullivan.

“He’s been told that when he gets his diploma, he can come to work for that company fulltime at a wage of $15 an hour.

They want to teach him to become an estimator.

By the time he’s 30 years old, he could be pulling down $50,000 or $60,000 a year.”

BANN’s Jones says the key is to give young people the opportunity to experience the trades.

“If they just experienced it, most of them would find they love the work.

Unlike a job in an office where you sit at a computer or attend meetings, with the construction trades, there is a finished product.

There is a sense of accomplishment.

A young person can look at the finished product and say ‘I helped build that’ and then look at the paycheck that comes with it.”

Both Jones and AGC’s Potter say the construction business is still one where the individual can climb the ladder as high as he or she wants.

Construction jobs, according to the U.S.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, pay 23 percent more than private-sector jobs overall.

Such jobs do not require a college degree and, both point out, such jobs cannot be exported to China or India.

“With our economy booming, I think we’re entering a golden age, especially here in Nevada,” says Jones.

“And I truly believe that the construction trades will play an ever-increasing role in our economic growth.

The jobs are there.

Now it’s up to all of us to convince young people that its work they’ll enjoy, work that will help them build for their families in the future.”


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