As Hernando construction picks up, skilled trades shortage develops

Shaun Knowles, 49, of Spring Hill, a carpenter with Professional Construction Services, works on a home going up on East Richard Drive in Weeki Wachee on Friday.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Shaun Knowles, 49, of Spring Hill, a carpenter with Professional Construction Services, works on a home going up on East Richard Drive in Weeki Wachee on Friday.

For those who make their living in Hernando County's residential construction industry, the good old days are but a fading memory. No longer can a contractor put in a call to pour a slab and expect to have the work completed within a couple of days.

Once the county's major economic growth engine, construction tumbled from a peak in 2005, when 4,185 building permits were issued for single-family homes. By 2011, that number had dropped to just 150.

The industry has begun to inch its way back, but local home builders are now facing a different problem: a shortage of skilled tradespeople.

As a result, many builders are feeling the pinch as they compete to find local subcontractors that can take on and complete new work in a reasonable amount of time, said Chris Glover, president of Palmwood Construction in Spring Hill.

"As things pick up, it's been getting harder and harder to plan a job," Glover said. "It used to be you would call up your plumbing contractor and have a job completed fairly quickly. But the recession forced a lot of subcontractors to expand beyond just our area into Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas. Now that they're established in those places, it's been hard to get them back."

During the boom years, subcontractors expanded their operations by hiring extra workers and buying vehicles and equipment to keep up with the exploding demand.

But according to state figures, an estimated 50,000 carpenters, masons, electricians and plumbers in the state's residential construction sector were put out of work when the real estate market collapsed and construction stalled. Many of those laborers are believed to have left the state in search of work or quit the building trades altogether.

And with the local building industry still in a wait-and-see mode, small subcontractors are reluctant to hire more workers for fear of having to lay them off.

"It's a vicious cycle," Glover said. "A lot of companies I deal with have maybe just one or two crews, and they're swamped. So you end up having to adjust to it. And when you're in a business where time is money, it can add up."

Finding experienced tradespeople even willing to do the job can be frustrating, said John Cavalier, owner of Professional Construction Specialist Inc. of Hudson. At the height of the building boom, his framing business staffed six full-time crews that completed an average of one home per day in Hernando, Pasco and Citrus counties. Now, he just has two crews.

"During the boom, you could put a want ad in the paper and you'd get a dozen responses from people who knew how to do the job," Cavalier said. "These days, I'm lucky if one out of 12 has the experience I'm looking for."

Cavalier said he doesn't believe wages are the problem. In fact, an experienced carpenter can earn upward of $16 an hour, which is competitive with many construction markets. Still, the trades shortage seems to center on a lack of people who want to make a living in the construction industry, said Hernando County contractor Dudley Hampton.

"The school systems in Florida have done a poor job in training people for the trades," Hampton said. "Kids these days are encouraged to go to college and become a computer genius rather than a carpenter or plumber because they're told that's where the money is. They don't mention that you can make a good, stable living in the construction industry, too."

Hampton believes the construction labor shortage could be alleviated fairly quickly if more attention were placed on establishing high school trade and apprentice programs. He also believes contractors would benefit from establishing their own apprenticeship programs.

"I think everyone in the industry needs to focus on the future," he said. "The construction business in Florida isn't going to go away anytime soon."

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1435.

As Hernando construction picks up, skilled trades shortage develops 01/17/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 17, 2014 5:15pm]

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