You are here

Trump's planned building boom bumps up against worker shortage

[COLUMBUS] President Donald Trump's plan to boost the economy with millions of jobs rebuilding roads, bridges and ports has a snag, the construction industry says: There aren't nearly enough skilled workers to fill them.

Companies including AECOM, Skanska USA Inc and Turner Construction Co say the industry is hard-pressed to find enough people for current openings, let alone with the expansion Trump envisions with an additional US$1 trillion in spending over the next decade. And though its full impact isn't yet clear, rebuilding efforts from Hurricane Harvey are likely to increase the demand for workers in the coming years.

"I don't think we could even dream of finding enough people," said Richard Cavallaro, president and chief executive officer of Skanska USA Civil, said of Mr Trump's plan to employ millions. "I just don't think it's going to happen like that." With the US economy at close to full employment, economists say there aren't millions of unemployed people looking for construction jobs - there were about 225,000 unfilled posts in June, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's only slightly down from a nine-year peak of 238,000 openings in July 2016, data show.

On top of that, about 3 million of the current 14.5 million construction workers will retire or leave the industry over the next decade and need to be replaced, according to Joseph Kane, a former economist at the BLS who is now at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "There really isn't a lot of breathing room in that market," he said.

The administration's immigration policies could compound the stress by making it more difficult to bring in qualified workers from other countries, said Stacey Bledsoe, director of human resource services for PCL Construction in Denver. In 2014, almost one of every four construction workers was an immigrant, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of government data.

Companies have already been reaching for whatever levers they can find to draw workers. Because firms are competing to secure subcontractors, New York-based Turner Construction has a program to pay them more quickly than other companies to ensure their availability, said Attilio Rivetti, vice president and director of preconstruction and estimating. Turner is also doing more prefabrication and modular work off site to make working conditions more attractive, he said.

AECOM Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Michael Burke said his company aims to fill more than 3,000 positions in the US and Canada this year in anticipation of more infrastructure spending. The firm is partnering with the Los Angeles Community College District to help prepare students for infrastructure-related jobs.

JAR Construction Inc, a family-owned firm with 120 employees in El Paso, Texas, is taking a different approach. It's offering to make the monthly student debt payment for some new hires because it can't match the starting salaries of larger competitors, said Angelica Rosales, director of business development.

"In this day and age, especially when you don't have as deep pockets as some of your competitors, you've got to get creative with your perks and your incentives,'' Ms Rosales said.

A survey by the Associated General Contractors of America released in January showed that 73 per cent of firms were having a hard time finding qualified workers, and 76 per cent predicted that labor conditions will remain tight or get worse during the next 12 months.