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Greenville Business Magazine

Help Wanted: The Future of the Construction Industry in the Upstate Depends on Finding Workers

Jul 03, 2017 01:44PM ● By Makayla Gay

By Emily Stevenson

Take a quick drive down any major Upstate thoroughfare, and you’ll see some kind of structure being built. With a thriving economy, new buildings are popping up at an alarming speed. It’s good news, yes – but the good news has a dark side.

Will Huss, president and CEO of Trehel Corp., sums up the commercial construction industry succinctly.

“It appears to be very stable with a severe lack of skilled workers,” he says. “The cross-trained workforce is something that’s hard to find right now.”

Huss describes cross-trained workers as those who can perform all manner of skilled trades that may be needed to finish a building: finishing concrete, laying blocks, setting doors, welding, carpentry, etc. The lack of skilled tradesmen particularly hurts smaller, local firms like Trehel.

“If you’re a larger company that focuses on concrete finishing, you may have enough concrete work to keep them busy,” Huss says. “If you’re a mid-size company like we are, you need somebody who can finish concrete one day and do carpentry the next.”

Huss is not the only construction firm owner feeling the pinch.

“As we grow and as the work continues, concerns about skilled laborers and craft workers, that’s very much a concern,” says David Wise. “We are certainly feeling that now on certain projects where subcontractors are stretched very thin and not able to perform at the level we need them to.”

Wise is the president of Harper Corp., a Greenville-based general contractor. He says that new technology, such as prefabricating HVAC and plumbing systems in a shop and delivering them to the job site pre-made, helps with the shortage of workers but doesn’t completely alleviate the need.

“It’s the idea that you don’t need as many craft workers in the field because you can put things together in a shop with equipment and skilled labor working in the shop,” Wise says. “That will continue to grow and become more prevalent over the next several years.”

Bill Caldwell, president and CEO of Waldrop, Inc., agrees.

“The advantage is you’ve got a controlled environment, you can probably work more efficiently because you’re not having to work around other trades, and you’re not getting rained out because of the weather or you’re not losing productivity because you’re working in 100-degree temperatures in the summer,” Caldwell says. “You build it, ship it there on a flatbed, unload it, set it in place, and hook it up to the work you have.”

The shortage of skilled construction workers isn’t a new phenomenon. Caldwell says that it’s something his mentors were talking about when he entered the business 40 years ago.

“I think the big difference now, though, is that our society and culture has changed so much as it relates to finding people who have a good work ethic and a good attitude,” he says.

Caldwell also says many workers are unwilling to invest time in themselves for training, even on-the-job training. Many workers prefer to punch the time card and go home.

Another culprit is the Great Recession of 2008-09. The implosion of the construction industry caused many firms to go out of business, and their employees had to seek other careers. Construction is now on more solid ground, but the workers have remained in their new jobs.  

Beyond that, though, the shortage of workers has more to do with the construction industry itself, and how it hasn’t capitalized on opportunities to reach out to local schools and promote its opportunities.

“Our industry doesn’t necessarily have the best reputation,” Caldwell admits. “People think of working as a plumber, you get down in the mud, you work on nasty systems, you’re not working in a controlled environment like you would at BMW on the assembly line. But people don’t understand that a kid can come out of one of these technical programs, work for a company like ours, learn a trade, and within four to five years he could potentially be a foreman.”

In short, the construction industry has a PR problem, one often fueled by well-meaning parents.

“A lot of this is tied to parents encouraging their children to be willing to get their fingernails dirty and to sweat,” says Huss. “That’s not where a lot of young folks want to be these days, but it’s a very fulfilling career. You use your mind, you use your body, you use every bit of talent you can have. A lot of it starts at home, introducing young people to the industry.”

It also starts in schools – and most guidance counselors aren’t encouraging students to pursue a career in construction. Part of the problem is that students who may be interested in construction are often recruited to the area’s booming manufacturing sector. Working environments and wages are partly to blame.

“We’ll have to raise our game from a benefits standpoint to recruit and retrain people in the construction industry,” says Wise. “What’s happened is that a lot of the craft workers who were in construction have migrated to the manufacturing area because the pay can be better, and I know the benefits are better than a typical subcontractor can provide for his laborers.”

But that doesn’t mean that construction isn’t lucrative. Doug Carlson, president and CEO of the Associated Builders and Contractors of the Carolinas says that high school students often don’t know how great a career in construction can be.

“A great welder can easily make six figures,” he says. “When you start showing them the almighty dollar, that will move people, but that takes time. We’ve had a couple of generations pushing kids to go to college. It’s stuck in parents’ heads. Guidance counselors are pushing kids to college, not construction.”

Education is the bottom line, but also the biggest hurdle.

“The biggest thing in our industry, and we’re starting to do this, is to communicate to young people at an earlier age about the opportunities in the construction industry,” says Wise. “Unfortunately, [construction] gets painted maybe not in the most favorable light as a profession, but there’s a lot of dignity and worth in being a true craft worker who puts things together for a living.”

As budget cuts have revamped the public education system, shop class and the like have been eliminated in favor of the more lucrative STEM curriculum. That lack of education has led to the decline in students interested in a career in construction, simply because they don’t even know what construction entails.

“When I was growing up, we had wood shop classes, etc., that exposed us to the technical fields,” says Brian Gallagher. “Today, in most high schools, you don’t have those classes. The way the workforce needs to be developed is a collaboration between companies in the industry, key trade organizations, and the educational systems, both public school systems and technical colleges.”

Gallagher is vice president of marketing for O’Neal, Inc., as well as the chairman of ABC of the Carolinas. The latter organization has been working to help educate its members and provide resources in terms of helping them go out and recruit a workforce. They provide tools and information to help construction firms communicate to students and student influencers, like guidance counselors and teachers, what the career opportunities in construction are.

Huss has worked closely with Greenville Technical College to help develop an educational program.

“A lot of contractors are hitting the technical schools pretty hard, saying, ‘We need help,” ” Huss says. “None of the schools knows how to do it yet, and that’s where the industry and schools collaborating is very important.”

Greenville Tech does have a building construction program, but primarily its focus has been on residential construction. Dr. Jermaine Whirl, vice president of economic development and corporate training, says that the school is now working with folks like Huss to put a new emphasis on commercial construction.

“What we’re working with commercial construction is to sit down with those folks, learn what skill sets are needed, and how we embed that in our current curriculum so students wanting to go that route will have that opportunity,” says Whirl.

Whirl says that he wants students to know that opportunities in construction are plentiful – and just a lucrative as their manufacturing counterparts.

“These companies are looking for workers,” Whirl says. “It’s truly a huge void. We have to get advocates in the K12 system, advocates from parents, because the big perception is that this isn’t a long-term sustainable career field, but you have folks who’ve been in this career for decades and they make up to six figures.”

One of the other ways Greenville Tech is helping to build a commercial construction workforce is to utilize oft-overlooked individuals. The school partners with several agencies around Greenville, such as Goodwill Industries and Homes of Hope, to train low-income or homeless families, particularly men, to work in construction. They leave the program certified in basic electric and construction work. Greenville Tech also works with nonviolent offenders to offer training and a career path post-incarceration.

“We have so many folks coming out of the judicial system who were arrested for, say, child support, nonviolent things, but they’re having a hard time finding work,” Whirl says. “Commercial construction employers, they’re open to hiring those workers, getting them trained and into the workforce.”

Meanwhile, ABC of the Carolinas takes a more traditional approach. It has an Upstate council, which acts as a mini board of directors. Every year, the council visits local high schools to talk to students about potential careers in construction. The group also has a partnership with Clemson University and their construction science management program.

“It’s not just craft workers,” says Carlson. “It’s also about the middle management, project managers, estimators. Those are also in strong demand.”

Wise says his company is engaged in utilizing coops and interns from area colleges and technical schools.

“An engineering student can go into design and consulting work, or he can go into construction work,” says Wise. “We want to find those people who want to move into a construction career and give them the opportunity.”

Harper Corp. also speaks to area high schools, and even elementary schools. The firm was a part of Rudolph Gordon Elementary School’s career day.

“We’re just kind of scratching the surface, but we’re beginning to get out into the K12 area and try to better promote the bright sides of the construction industry,” says Wise. “It’s going to take a truly collaborative effort between all the players in the industry to really make a difference and try to overcome the challenges we’re facing now.”

Ignoring those challenges and neglecting the shortage has far-reaching impacts. It’s an Economics 101 lesson: the fewer employees available, the more they cost.   

“Labor can easily be the highest cost of a project,” says Gallagher. “When you have a shortage of a workforce, the price of labor goes up because it’s in demand.

Worst-case scenario, though, the company who needs the building decides to take it elsewhere.”

“The problem is that when we don’t address the workforce issues, it creates an economic development challenge,” says Whirl. “Companies wonder if they should move to another location or import workers from another state if we don’t give them the workforce they need.”

Experts agree it will be at least five years before the industry begins to see the payoff of its efforts, possibly even longer. Still, they agree that it’s worth it – not only to shore up the lagging workforce, but to introduce young adults to a career they’ve all enjoyed.

“We get to build some exciting projects,” says Wise, “and because we are excited about it, we can be excited about recruiting and retraining good people in our firm, and hopefully join with other contractors to promote construction as a very good profession.”