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Construction workers in demand, earning higher wages

As the pace of construction in the region continues to heat up with new homes, restaurants and retail shops coming online after a longtime lull, new data released earlier this week indicates there may not be enough skilled workers to do all the building.

About two-thirds of construction firms nationwide are having trouble filling positions for skilled tradesmen, such as carpenters, plumbers and electricians, as the construction workforce struggles to return to its pre-recession peak, according to a new survey from The Associated General Contractors of America (AGCA), which has about 26,000 member firms.

In Ohio, 78 percent of construction firms say they’re having trouble filling some hourly craft positions, with carpenters and dry-wall installers noted as the hardest positions to fill, according to the survey.

Bo Bauer, a local architect and independent contractor, is building a home for himself and his wife, and plans to build four luxury townhomes on a plot at the intersection of Main and Caldwell streets, just west of the University of Dayton. But Bauer doesn’t anticipate a quick turnaround on the townhomes because he’s had to rely on many different sub-contractors just to put a crew together to help finish his house.

“Everybody’s busy, and that’s a good thing, but when you working on a small project like mine, it’s tough to find people because they’re all working other jobs,” Bauer said.

Experts say the labor shortage in the construction industry should come as no surprise, considering how much the workforce in the area has thinned since the Great Recession.

>>> RELATED: Ohio unemployment shrinks along with workforce

Last month, the total number of construction workers in the area stood at about 13,200, down 12 percent from more than 15,000 construction jobs in the area in July 2007, just months before the Great Recession began, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The workforce is building back up, and area firms added 500 construction jobs in the past year as building began or continued on major projects, such as Dayton Children’s Hospital’s new eight-story patient tower on its near-downtown campus, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital addition in Liberty Twp.and the Love Truck Stop in Springfield.

But construction activity is snapping up workers faster than they become available, according to Kathleen Unger, executive director of the Greater Dayton Home Builders Association (GDHBA).

“New jobs are coming online, but there is still a big shortage of qualified people to do all the work,” Unger said. “Contractors that do have people in those positions are worried because they can only handle so much work at one time. If you need more and more and more from your subcontractors, eventually they’re going to have to start turning jobs down.”

To cope, contractors have been forced to offer bonuses, raise wages and offer other financial incentives to attract and retain skilled workers. In Ohio, 53 percent of construction firms said they increased pay, benefits or both for hourly craft or salaried personnel in the last year because of difficulty in filling positions, according to the AGCA survey.

“My builders tell me that carpenters, people who are really good at framing, good electricians, plumbers…they are desperate for those people to come in, and you can make a really amazing living doing it,” Unger said.

The median annual wage for all construction and extraction occupations was $42,280 in May 2015, which was higher than the median annual wage for all occupations of $36,200, according to the latest BLS figures, which showed carpenters and electricians earning more than $40,000 and $50,000 a year, respectively.

But the skill trades have gotten a bad reputation in recent years, contributing to the lingering worker shortage from the recession, said Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the national contractors association.

“As we’ve dismantled what once was called vocational education, we’ve signaled to students that construction is not a career that people out to pursue and all students need to go to college and work in an office,” Turmail said. “Folks have followed that lead and not pursued construction careers, despite the fact they pay better than the average job in the United States.”

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