Construction firms across the state expect to step up hiring significantly in 2019 to meet a growing demand for the industry. There's just one problem — a labor shortage that has plagued construction for years.According to a Florida member survey by the Associated General Contractors of America, about 83 percent of firms expected their headcount to increase by at least 50 percent in the coming year. About half anticipate hiring between 11 and 25 employees. That's on track with national numbers, as 79 percent of firms surveyed nationally expect to hire. But finding qualified workers won't be easy.Just less than 80 percent of Florida firms said they have difficulty filling positions, and 48 percent anticipate they will continue to struggle to find qualified employees. "Worker shortages" was the chief concern cited in the survey (53 percent), followed by rising cost of materials (13 percent). Only four percent of those surveyed said it will be easier to hire this year.“As growing demand and labor shortages force contractors to do more with less," said Ken Simonson, the organization's chief economist, "many firms are increasing their investments in labor-saving technologies and techniques.” Some firms (25 percent) are using equipment that takes out some of the human component of labor, such as drones or robots, to deal with the shortage, while others (18 percent) keep the onsite work time down with virtual modeling or fabricating parts offsite.Another method is making companies more attractive to current and prospective employees. Half of the firms surveyed increased pay recently, while a fifth bolstered incentives or bonuses. About 15 percent increased employee benefits, and another 15 percent is considering pay or benefit boosts. The vast majority — 78 percent — are leaning into investments for training and development for their workers. Without more workers, a labor shortage may continue to eat into firms' bottom line. Costs were higher than expected for 26 percent of surveyed firms and took longer than expected for a third. That meant longer estimated completion times for 11 percent. Contact Malena Carollo at [email protected] or (727) 892-2249. Follow @malenacarollo.