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Florida's surging construction industry faces worker shortage

TAMPA

Since joining his father's construction crew when he was 16, Casey Ellison has ridden 21 years of Florida building booms and busts.

This time, though, the recovery is playing out a different way. As both commercial and residential development picks up, construction managers are having a hard time filling their crews, particularly subcontractors like electricians, plumbers, drywallers and carpenters.

"We don't seem to be bringing the workforce back in the market like we've typically seen in the past," Ellison said. The shortage "is a little more profound now."

Part of the problem is the loss of experienced workers who fled Florida to pursue the fracking boom in states like North Dakota and Texas. Part is tied to a demographic squeeze: Aging, experienced baby boomers are retiring and their younger comrades who have been shell-shocked by the recession aren't embracing building trades as a career.

Steve Cona of the local chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors highlighted the trend line during a recent Tampa forecasting event. He noted that nearly 21 percent of skilled construction workers are 55 or older, and 29 percent are 45 to 54 years old. "We're not replacing those people fast enough," Cona said.

He expects the shortage will only worsen with major projects intensifying — from a $1 billion overhaul of Tampa International Airport to a $1 billion redevelopment of the southern edge of downtown Tampa, an effort led by Tampa Bay Lightning owner/budding real estate tycoon Jeff Vinik.

Florida is hardly the only place facing a shortage.

A recent survey by the National Association of Home Builders found 46 percent of builders reported a worker shortage last year. That's the highest across the nine trades surveyed since 2000, and even slightly higher than the peak of the housing boom in 2005 when housing starts were running at the pace of 2 million a year, or about twice the current rate.

Yet for Florida — which saw its construction workforce sliced in half during the Great Recession — the fact that jobs are going wanting borders on remarkable.

"Everybody who had gotten lean and mean to withstand the bad market are now having to work more hours," said Mark Weaver, vice president of Tampa-based Ed Taylor Construction, which is juggling about 15 jobs. "It's a stress of a different kind."

Like others emerging from the crippling recession, many construction workers have postponed retirement. One member of his crew is nearly 70 years old and showing no signs of slowing down, Weaver said.

But he knows the old guard won't be around forever, and he's taking the generational challenge personally. "I'm in my 50s," he said, "and my obligation is to find the next generation of youth and get them trained."

The past four to six months, Weaver said, he has tried to spread the word that he was hiring with an emphasis on recruiting a veteran or two.

"You have to find an ingenuous way to come up with a crew," notes Tim Sewell, general manager of Florida operations for construction firm Walbridge,

One way Sewell has sought workers is through a Tampa mentoring program called ACE, short for Architecture, Construction and Engineering. The private program promotes the building trades to high schoolers.

The worker shortage has had a ripple impact.

Some projects are taking longer to complete or costing more than expected. In a climate where skilled electricians and plumbers can command top dollar, "you have to be careful you're not overpaying for guys," Weaver said.

Contractors are also getting more choosy, wary of taking on more than they can handle. Sewell, for instance, said he used to bid on multiple jobs. Now, his company may pursue only one out of every three or four jobs it could tackle.

To Jonathon Dehmel, president of IBEW Local 915 in Tampa, the biggest looming problem is not a lack of workers but a lack of skilled workers.

He worries that institutional knowledge is not being passed down because experienced workers either were let go during the recession or are retiring now. The younger generation is not interested in the trades, and too few of those who do join are trained through a proper apprenticeship, he said.

"The whole thing is getting a little less professional," Dehmel said. "There's a shortage of the skills they need."

Shoddy construction practices may not even be noticed by inspectors. But lack of quality control and proper training, he said, could lead to more on-the-job injuries.

And those facilities that are supposed to last 20 or 30 years? They may not go the distance.

Contact Jeff Harrington at jharrington@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3434. Follow @JeffMHarrington.

Florida's surging construction industry faces worker shortage 02/20/15 [Last modified: Friday, February 20, 2015 7:02pm]
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