In better times, construction firms struggle to find workers

Published 8:10 am Monday, May 19, 2014

Carquita Hall, a recent Summit Academy OIC graduate, talks with Solid LLC’s Tim Haubrichmabout carpentry jobs Wednesday, May 7, during a Builders Association of the Twin Cities job fair in St. Paul. Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

Carquita Hall, a recent Summit Academy OIC graduate, talks with Solid LLC’s Tim Haubrichmabout carpentry jobs Wednesday, May 7, during a Builders Association of the Twin Cities job fair in St. Paul. Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

By Annie Baxter

MPR News

St. Paul — At a recent job fair in St. Paul, Tim Haubrich, a project manager at Solid Employees LLC, was selling his firm’s openings to a job seeker who had some questions. A big one was whether he was looking for someone with lots of experience.

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“We’re looking for persons of all skill levels and ambition and willingness to work is really key,” Haubrich replied.

As Minnesota’s economy continues to recover, employers like Haubrich are struggling to find workers. The state’s construction firms, which shed tens of thousands of jobs because of the housing crash and the Great Recession, can’t fill open jobs fast enough.

Haubrich’s company supplies other firms with labor for projects like new home construction and remodeling, a part of the economy that’s booming again. According to state employment data, construction is by far the fastest growing industry in the state, notwithstanding job losses in the sector last month.

In recent months, construction managers have found it much harder to find people with experience, like lead carpenters. The specialty trades, including carpentry, dumped 30,000 jobs in the housing downturn.

After years of little or no work, many of the most seasoned workers gave up and moved on. That’s one of the legacies of the industry’s brutal downturn.

“Some are not reachable,” Haubrich said. “They’ve got their own business and or went in a completely different direction.”

Workers might not want to return to an industry paying less than it used to.

During the recession, when workers were desperate, employers could hire them for less than they had in previous years, said Aaron Johnson, one of the owners of Castle Building and Remodeling in Minneapolis.

“We were able to get better people for a little cheaper,” Johnson said. “So there was some guys who were experienced who would take less of a wage than they would in ‘06 or ‘07 because they wanted a job.”

At Castle, a non-union firm, lead carpenters made about $27 before the downturn. That pay rate plunged to around $23 in the recession’s depths. On an annual basis that could mean about $8,000 in lost income. Now, lead carpenters’ pay has regained roughly half the lost ground. But it’s still depressed.

Representatives of several non-union companies at the job fair said the trajectory of wages at their firms has been nearly identical to Castle’s and generally agreed with Johnson there’s more “catching up” to do with pay.

“Labor markets are notoriously slow to respond to changing market conditions. The price doesn’t adjust on a day to day basis like the price of lettuce in the grocery store,” said Steve Hine, Minnesota head labor market analyst.

Hine said construction is undergoing a big shift. Employers held all the cards a couple years ago, but now it’s much more of a worker’s market. At the end of 2013, construction firms reported a record number of job vacancies. That means workers can be choosier about where they apply.

To fill the vacancies, firms probably do need to boost wages, Hine said, but they might also need to scale back their expectations about the skills they demand for the going wage.

“We have noticed that the experience levels is often considerably higher than it might need to be, definitely higher than it has been in the past,” Hine said. “And employers are going to have to consider relaxing some of the requirements they have, which they might’ve been much more successful in meeting four or five years ago when it was more of a buyer’s market.”

Hine said that might mean construction firms also will have to drop a common requirement — that workers supply their own vehicle.

That requirement has made it hard for Carquita Hall, of Richfield, to find work. Hall, 25, earned a carpentry certification last year but hasn’t yet landed a job.

“I was top in my class, top 10,” she said. “The only reason I wasn’t work ready was I didn’t have a reliable vehicle,”

Hall travelled nearly two hours by bus to attend the construction jobs fair in St. Paul, hoping that making a personal connection with potential employers would improve her chances of being hired.

She landed a few leads and is confident that with a huge number of available construction jobs, one will be hers soon.