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Trigaux: Where did all the construction workers go? Florida builders can't find them

Skilled construction workers are in short supply in Florida, where builders are having a tough time filling jobs as demand for development climbs. One builder called it an "epidemic." (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) NYBZ912
Published Aug. 29, 2015

With construction cranes and new home building becoming ever more familiar sights in Florida, it's getting tougher to find skilled workers to keep up with rising demand.

Small wonder. Florida added 4,800 construction jobs in July — more than any other state.

In the past 12 months, Florida's gain of 26,500 construction jobs was second only to larger California, according to a recent analysis of U.S. Department of Labor data by the Associated General Contractors of America. The findings show an uneven national rebound in construction. While the Florida economy is a clear beneficiary, other states saw sharp declines in construction jobs, led by New York's 4,500 job loss in July and Ohio's 13,800 decline in the past year.

Florida's building boomlet, though, is driving up wages, which in turn adds to the final cost of commercial buildings and new homes. Average hourly earnings for construction labor were up 2.6 percent annually in July, compared with 2.1 percent for all U.S. workers. Those wage bumps have not stemmed the increase in spot shortages of carpenters and, especially in the South, plumbers and electricians.

"I would go so far as to call it an epidemic," National Association of Home Builders CEO Jerry Howard told USA Today this week. The shortages have helped drive up new home prices an average 5.7 percent over the past 12 months.

In Florida, the numbers reflect the state's ongoing struggle to rebuild a construction workforce that lost more than half of its jobs during the recession as skilled workers fled to states like North Dakota and Texas to find employment.

"We are badly in need of skilled laborers to fill the gaps now that construction jobs are booming again, specifically plumbers, electricians and drywall finishers," Doreen DiPolito, owner and president of Clearwater's D-Mar General Contracting, told trade magazine Builder this summer. Her firm, in addition to handling home building, also works on projects with McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts and Quiznos, among other companies.

"The shortage is horrible. It is hard to find people to work," she said. "Definitely a different story than a few years ago."

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com.

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