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Florida's construction worker shortage is stalling development

Construction personnel work on the east side of the main terminal at Tampa International Airport on one of the two new outdoor terraces on Wednesday Sept. 16, 2015. JAMES BORCHUCK  |  Times
Construction personnel work on the east side of the main terminal at Tampa International Airport on one of the two new outdoor terraces on Wednesday Sept. 16, 2015. JAMES BORCHUCK | Times
Published Sep. 19, 2015

Florida is on the verge of another building boom, but there's just one problem: No one wants to do the work.

Construction workers are scarce for a number of reasons. Many were burned by job losses during the recession and aren't returning to the industry. Others are turned off by low pay or don't want to work outside in the Florida heat.

Older workers are retiring and younger people aren't eager to take their spots. Millennials don't see construction work as a career path, and shop class is no longer featured in high schools as it used to be.

All this is threatening to derail a surge of new development in Florida as contractors struggle to find qualified workers. It could lead to higher prices and longer buildout times — not only for homes, but for major developments like new retail plazas and condominium high-rises. Even high-profile projects like Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik's plans to reshape downtown Tampa, and the $953 million in ongoing renovations at Tampa International Airport could be stymied.

"It's our biggest challenge facing the entire industry right now," said Steve Cona III, president and CEO of the Associated Builders and Contractors Florida Gulf Coast chapter. "It's going to have a major effect on these big projects happening in Tampa Bay. They're going to take longer to complete if we can't find enough skilled workers."

One of those contractors at TIA is Morrow Steel of Zephyr- hills, which has 40 iron workers installing the structural steel skeletons of new buildings at the airport, a $4 million contract for the firm, vice president Chad Morrow said.

Morrow — who has workers in Clearwater constructing the Wyndham Grand Resort and the Restoration Hardware store at International Plaza — said recruiting has been challenging and that the age of his workforce is climbing.

"We work with the unions to bring in qualified people and hadn't had a problem finding interest since this is a big job. But the average age of an iron worker is 41, and we're actively trying to lower that," Morrow said. "Finding good help is tough. The culture of our society has changed so much because of technology and the millennials have found easier ways to make a living."

The construction industry is going to need thousands of workers to meet the demand for new development in the Sunshine State in the next year, construction firms anticipate. Florida added 4,800 more construction jobs in July, more than any other state, according to data from the Department of Labor Statistics. Over the last year, the state gained 26,500 construction jobs, which is second in the country only to California.

But trade groups say the demand for qualified workers is greater than the supply.

"The construction industry is the first to let people go and the last to rebound and hire again," said Brian Turmail, spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America. "So a lot of people that were let go during the recession went back to school and found other jobs or left the state, and we've since lost the pipeline in the American school system to train new workers."

The average age for new construction workers in Florida is around 28 years old, Cona said, more than a decade older than the crop of workers who used to start apprenticeships right out of high school. But fewer high schools teach shop class these days and funding for vocational programs at technical colleges has dried up, Turmail said.

"There's been a philosophical shift in the approach to education. Every student is put on a college track, even those that may not be meant for it," he said. So it takes several years for young workers to find the construction industry, usually after they've left college or tried work in another industry. "We can't even get into schools to let students know there are other options."

The majority of these younger workers don't join unions either, which has squashed another recruiting source, Turmail said.

All of this raises the question: Would more people enter the industry if the jobs paid more?

"Until we start paying three times the usual wage, we're not going to attract a younger crop of workers who would much rather work inside somewhere in communications or technology," said Carmen Ciricillo, a former contractor in Sarasota who now teaches contractor classes across the state. "At my seminars, almost everyone there who is looking to be a contractor is over the age of 50. There's no new blood coming in."

But with entry-level laboring jobs like those at the Amazon distribution center in Ruskin starting workers at $14 an hour with benefits from day one, it's hard for construction firms to compete. The new warehouse, which drew thousands for a job fair last month, is air-conditioned, too.

The average construction worker in Florida makes $37,000 a year or $17.79 an hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data from May 2014. But starting salaries are likely much lower, jobs may not come with benefits and working conditions may be uncomfortable and there's less job security.

"They don't want to work outside when there's opportunity to make more in air-conditioning somewhere else," Ciricillo said. "No one wants to do a tough job anymore working with their hands unless you're an immigrant who is just happy to have a job. The only way to fix the shortage is to raise the pay."

Construction industry trade groups are lobbying for the federal and state governments to invest more in vocational education programs again and renegotiate anti-trust laws to allow construction firms to create their own regional training programs, Turmail said. Some kind of immigration reform would provide immediate though temporary relief, too.

Apprentice programs are scarce these days because federal and state rules make it difficult for multiple employers to work together to create regional training programs. Because of this, few companies are willing to pay for the cost of training contractors on their own, knowing there's a risk that another company can hire away trained staff and underbid them for projects.

Trade groups also support any legislation that would expedite the legal status for undocumented workers, many whom are already working limited construction jobs.

In some states, high school students can learn construction skills free through statewide or citywide programs, but these programs don't exist in Florida yet.

There are some low-cost training opportunities, though.

Manatee Technical College started a nine-week construction certification course in Bradenton this year. The course costs $1,500, but grants and payment plans are available. A South Florida charter school is offering something similar. The Helen Gordon Davis Centre for Women launched a free 10-week training course in Hills­borough County this summer that teaches women the skills to work in construction.

"Every problem presents an opportunity, and for this one, it's the young people who get into construction now," said Chuck Nelms, president and CEO of West Shore Construction Corp. in Clearwater, which specializes in residential remodels. "If you drive through Pinellas County or see the homes by boat on the water, you can see there's still so much work to be done."

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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