Construction Labor Across the United States
David C Phillips / December 2022
The dynamics of the construction industry can shift dramatically with changes in the availability, skill level and cost of labor. We asked AWCI contractor members about the current situation and trends in this sector, and for any workable solutions.
Our first question was simply to understand the labor conditions across the country today. No better way to find out than to ask those on the front lines: How easy or hard is it currently for you to find the necessary labor to man your projects properly?
Dusty Barrick, president of Diversified Interiors of Amarillo, Ltd. in Texas, sums up what seems to be the general situation around the country: “It is extremely difficult to find qualified help for reasonable wages. Wages are climbing dramatically and the quality of worker is worsening every day.”
“The current labor market in my area is sparse at best,” says Jess Saylor, president of Saylor’s, Inc. in Michigan. “Finding top quality people is very difficult.”
Julio Durazo, project manager at Old Pueblo Stucco LLC in Arizona, agrees: “Extremely hard! We are constantly struggling to find any workers for the plastering trade at all, let alone a ‘qualified trade’ labor force.”
And it is no better in Oregon. Joe Stevenson, owner of WhiteStar Enterprises LLC in Bend, says, “It’s extremely hard. We have ads placed on Indeed.com all over the country. Those who are willing to move have nowhere to live when they arrive. At this time, we have a six-month backlog.”
Clint Edwards, vice president of operations at the Heartland Companies in Iowa, says, “Right now finding qualified labor is very hard. Companies are competing for the same few people. People new to the trades are applying, but once they see how hard it is, the retention rate is very low.”
Gary Dillman, CEO of Baylor Construction, Inc. in Florida, says, “There are not enough skilled workers to meet the demand.”
Some companies can find the people, but not people with the right skill sets. David Sparacino, production manager at Marek in Texas, explains, “It’s not hard to find labor so much as skilled labor. It takes four or five years to acquire the skills that we need. Those with one or two years’ experience are demanding top wages.”
Ken Fox, vice president of Delta United Specialists, Inc. in Tennessee, confirms, “Currently, labor is available, but the skill set has dropped an average of 14%.”
“In our area, the labor shortage has not been that noticeable,” adds Michael Mazzone, president of Statewide General Contracting & Construction, Inc. in Hawaii. “The problem is finding good help. Each generation has traditionally complained about the next. When I was 20, the older journeymen always complained that they don’t make workers like them anymore. To complicate the issue, over the last 50 years, educators have looked down on trade work, so young people feel it is beneath them.”
“It is relatively easy to find labor for projects, but finding quality crews is harder,” says Bill Fritz, president of Mission Interiors Contracting LLC, in Texas.
But some report a positive situation.
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Bill McKibban, vice president of AIMM Inc. in New Jersey, says, “We haven’t had a problem with staffing work up to now, but as the backlog of work starts to hit, we may. We’ll count on our existing workforce to help with any new employees we send out in the field.”
Adam Barbee, senior estimator/project manager at Daley’s Drywall in California, adds. “Currently we have no issues with manpower within our construction field. We still see a healthy and steady flow of workers. Our industry being union and predominantly labor-oriented helps this dynamic.”
David Fleck, president of Fleck Exterior Systems, Inc. in Florida, says, “We have a very specific niche in EIFS, which requires great skill, so our workforce is very specialized. Our already small labor force before the pandemic became even smaller with COVID. Our crew rapidly dwindled from 18-20 to 10-12 highly skilled and specialized workers. Work slowed some at first but picked up quickly after the initial shock of COVID. We have been able to stay productive throughout the last two years with our smaller crew. Instead of being spread across three or four jobs at once, we handle one or two quickly and efficiently. So I would say currently our ability to man jobs has been good—we just found ways to adapt and become more productive.”
Overall, there seems little question that there are issues with finding and retaining skilled construction labor at reasonable wages in most parts of the country.
In this current market, have contractors developed any particularly workable approaches to finding and retaining good workers?
Fleck says, “We operate by the Golden Rule, treating our employees the way we want to be treated. We have a loyal team of guys, most of whom have been with us for a minimum of 15 years. Each of those guys plays a big role in the team execution. We make sure they are compensated well. Without anyone asking for a raise, we adjusted their wages to help soften the impact of recent inflation.”
Barrick says, “Retaining workers has been a problem for years. We offer perks like retirement, insurance, vacation, etc., but these have not had much impact. We have a base of loyal hard-working men, but adding to it is a challenge.”
Rick Wagner, owner of Richard Wagner Enterprises LLC in North Carolina, says, “We have resorted to using more sub crews. We vet them upfront for experience, legality and insurances—but honestly.” He adds, “This market has spawned labor brokers who just manage legal manpower and all the illegal help you want, if you want to go that way. We don’t! It hurts the market. Money talks. The ball is in the labor court right now, and we are paying more than we ever have.”
“Our approach for the last 10 years has been developing and training people new to the industry,” says Saylor.
Sparacino says, “We have hired a recruiter for field staff to help us dive deeper into the market to find and pay the best help. An accelerated training program is vital for bringing low-skilled workers up to speed. The challenge is to retain them.”
“We are reaching out to job fairs and recruit high school grads who do not want to go to college,” says Edwards. “We can then get them into an apprenticeship program and help them learn a trade.”
Barbee says, “We do our best with training and having the individuals who need skilled training work with some of our best so that we can ‘clone.’”
McKibban says, “Here at AIMM Inc., we have a great relationship with the Carpenter’s union and have developed a program to recruit and train needed employees. This program is in its infancy, but it shows great promise.”
“Retaining good, reliable workers and quality craftsmen boils down to pay, benefits, work conditions and making workers feel like they are part of a team and work family,” says Fritz. “Respect and positive comments go a long way.”
Mazzone says providing employees with a good work environment seems to be the best way to do it.
“We are working hard to keep our best talented employees through constant efforts to instill intrinsic motivation to do the trade that they have been performing for over 20 years by making them see the great difference that they are making in our customers’ lives,” says Durazo.
Where Is It Headed?
Finally, we asked for notable trends and predictions:
“It certainly doesn’t feel like it is going to be improving any time soon,” predicts Barrick. “There is a ton of construction work in our region, so it is easy for labor to hop around. I think the answer to adding workers to the labor force is simple in theory but difficult in practice. As a country, we are trying to figure out how to handle the huge rush of people across our borders; providing them with a path to the workforce would take a lot of pressure off the industry.”
Saylor says, “The biggest trend I see is that many workers only want to work 40 hours. In the past, most of our employees wanted to work as much as they could.”
“More immigrants from places other than Mexico are showing up to work,” says Sparacino. “They bring a variety of skills that help improve our workforce. I see this trend accelerating as they find work in Texas. Many are making more money in a few days than they were earning in a month where they came from.”
“I don’t think I have seen any positive changes yet,” says Durazo.” The main issue we are finding is that fewer and fewer people are trying to enter the construction trades to make a living. I believe that we are headed in the direction of offering trade classes at Pima Community College, and through the forces of supply and demand, considerably increase salaries in order to motivate younger people to enter the construction trades.”
Stevenson says, “With the shortage of craftsmen, plastering will become more and more expensive. It is still a sought-after cladding despite the shortage of skilled labor to deliver it. Young people either don’t want to work with their hands or find the work too hard.”
Gabriel Castillo, director of business development at Pillar Construction, Inc. in Virginia, sees “a definite decline in the number of people entering the construction labor force. Hard work and lack of trade/craftsmanship appreciation makes it hard to attract young individuals. The commoditizing of construction work has removed the craftsmen and ‘artists’—e.g., plasterers, carpenters, millworkers—from the job sites. Attention to detail and craftsmanship have been replaced by faster output. Construction labor cannot be outsourced overseas, cannot telework, cannot use Zoom or Teams calls to complete the work; carpenters and plasterers have to be on-site every day working hands on.”
“It seems that fewer workers have that drive to do better, faster work,” notes Mazzone. “I notice I have changed my production rates over the years. It is taking more man-hours to complete typical tasks.”
“The average wage has gone up 20% simply due the market shortage of labor,” says Fox. “Our competition has resorted to actively recruiting on job sites. We have had to increase our wages. We have made it clear that if someone leaves and wants to return, the wages will be at the 2019 rate. The jobs they are leaving for are short term. After the first group went this route, the others have had second thoughts.”
“Employers are now paying money over scale to retain and hold employees,” says Edwards. “This increases overhead costs. I think the path we are on is bad for the employee. While making a dollar or two more now is great, when the work slows down employers will lay these individuals off first to keep costs down.”
Wagner comments on the trends in his market in North Carolina: “Latino labor brokers are controlling the market. We try to hire one employee, and receive call upon call from Latino crews wanting to do the work. The days of one man looking for a job must be over.” He also notes, “The local schools are pushing CMC operators, manufacturing and health apprenticeships, not the trades.”
Barbee says, “We’re definitely in different times and with that we all have to evolve. There is an increased focus on individuals feeling more comfortable doing their different tasks.”
Some see possible brighter times ahead.
Pat Arrington, principal of Commercial Enterprises in New Mexico, points out, “Housing market closings are down 19%. This will free up manpower for all trades. Additional interest rates will be imposed cutting out much new housing construction.” He also sees the water shortage in Arizona, Nevada and California further reducing the volume of new construction, which will result in more available labor for projects.
“Once the midterms are over and the predicted change in power with either the Senate or House or both, the government spending should slow,” says McKibban. “That may cool down inflation, which may help the pressure on wages. When wages stabilize you’ll see a lot less job-hopping.”
Fritz points out, “Trends have a tendency to come and go based on work demand. We’re definitely going to pay more money and benefits in the current market. Next year could be a different story as interest rates and costs are cooling the construction industry.”
Fleck says, “I think we have a labor force with an overwhelmingly low desire to work with their hands these days, but if they do, they want top dollar! I’m not sure what the future holds for construction labor, but there could be a change if the economy slows as predicted and if government handouts (stimulus checks, etc.) stop. There could be a lot of folks looking for work in the near future.”
David C Phillips, a freelance writer and photographer, is an original founding partner at Words & Images.
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