Florida's construction industry is ramping up for a strong year of hiring in 2014 — if it can find the skilled workers it needs.
That's according to an annual survey released Tuesday by the trade group Associated General Contractors of America.
Last year, 46 percent of surveyed Florida construction companies added workers and 31 percent laid off workers.
Looking ahead, one-third of the companies said they planned to add workers and two-thirds forecast no change. None of the companies projected layoffs.
The sentiment was the same across the country. Forty-one percent of firms that did not change staff levels last year report they plan to start expanding payrolls in 2014, while only 2 percent plan on making layoffs.
"Contractors are more optimistic about 2014 than they have been in a long time," said Stephen E. Sandherr, CEO of the association. "While the industry has a long way to go before it returns to the employment and activity levels it experienced in the middle of the last decade, conditions are heading in the right direction."
Instead of market conditions, contractors worry about rising costs, more government regulation and a lack of skilled workers.
Florida's construction industry was hit harder than any other during the Great Recession, with a 700,000-strong workforce cut in half. In 2012, Tampa Bay had the dubious distinction of losing more construction jobs year-over-year than any other metro region in the country.
But construction has since rebounded, playing a strong role in pushing down Florida's unemployment rate. Over the past year, the state has added more than 24,000 construction jobs, a 7 percent increase.
Now contractors have a different problem.
In a conference call Tuesday morning, contractors from across the country echoed concerns about finding skilled workers. Florida was no different.
Sixty-nine percent of surveyed contractors said they expect it to become more difficult to find and hire skilled craft workers this year while 46 percent anticipated it will become harder to find and hire professional workers.
Hardest craft worker positions to fill: pipefitters and welders, followed by bricklayers. Hardest professional jobs to fill: project managers and engineers.
Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the construction association, said Florida's rebound has been a mixed bag. Demand in the private sector is accelerating: office, retail, schools, lodging, warehouse and even manufacturing to some extent. But there was relative pessimism for demand for new public buildings, the power industry, water/sewer and highway construction.
Moreover, about 87 percent of Florida's contractors plan to lease new equipment instead of buying, indicating trepidation over how long the resurgence will last. "They're hedging their bets a little bit," Turmail said.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8242.