According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, upwards of 47 million workers quit their jobs in 2021. Many have coined the disruption of the U.S. labor market “The Great Resignation.” Others — more recently — refer to the state of labor as “The Great Reshuffle,” as hiring rates outpace quit rates (since November 2020). In the construction realm, these semantic terms don’t quite capture the current labor market. If it had to be given a moniker, perhaps “The Great Disparity” would adequately represent the construction workforce environment.
Even amidst a great need for skilled construction workers, organizations like the Arizona Builders Alliance (ABA), local contractors and education outlets are doing their part to tip the balance. By forming apprenticeships, partnerships and focusing on training-based recruitment, the hope is that today’s efforts will fuel a more stabilized tomorrow.
Closing a hefty gap
“In the whole country, there are 600,000 open construction jobs,” says Tom Dunn, president of ABA.
By now, it’s clear the pandemic punched a vast hole in the labor market, but local experts explain that an employment disparity — specifically in construction — existed prior to COVID-19. “The size of the labor market has been shrinking for the last 10 years or so,” Dunn explains, “because of the baby boomers retiring and so much economic upheaval in the past. Now, everyone is chasing after the same people to come into the marketplace to support projects.”
The dwindling supply of local construction labor has caused some contractors to seek the skilled workers they need outside of the state.
“We have started looking out of state [for new employees] and have been successful adding talented and motivated personnel,” says Grenee Celuch, CEO of Concord General Contracting. “The business environment has changed substantially since COVID where working from home opens a lot of opportunities as far as recruitment. While our business doesn’t operate remotely, we find that recruiting out of state is possible since spouses are able to relocate because they do work remotely.”
Celuch goes on to explain that while in the past, Concord would typically steer away from hiring from out of state, doing so now has its upsides. “Bringing on new employees from different geographical locations has helped us look at the way we do business differently and has been amazing to see the positive effects our new talent is bringing to Concord,” she says.
Training and education solutions
Even though recruiting from out of state is a necessity that has paid off for many contractors and developers, there is a continued desire to formulate a viable construction employment pipeline within the state.
“This [labor supply issue] is not a new challenge for the Arizona construction industry,” explains Justin Dent, senior vice president of McCarthy Building Companies Southwest. “For years McCarthy has been laser-focused on developing a sustainable and skilled craft workforce.”
Part of cultivating a healthy and robust construction labor workforce includes enticing new generations into the industry — something that has, according to the National Center for Construction Education & Research (NCCER) not been an easy feat, leading to a “shrinking pool of candidates.” Outdated perceptions of what construction work is like has been part of the problem, noted by NCCER.
Common past impressions of a construction career have included: it comes with minimal pay, is highly
dangerous and dirty, and environmentally
disruptive, as examples.
Helping to combat these and other more archaic notions of what employment in construction is are the emergence and expansion of career and technical education (CTE) pathways. Locally, West-MEC and the East Valley Institute of Technology (EVIT) offer early exposure to a range of construction-related career options.
Adds Dunn, “In Pima County, we have a very strong relationship with Pima County JTED, and we have advisory boards where our member companies sit and help the instructors train because right now that’s another problem as well.”
Dent notes that McCarthy has focused on working with a diverse coalition of industry partners to raise awareness among new audiences, including young people, those who are under-employed and veterans about opportunities and high-paying construction careers in the trades. “McCarthy continues to invest in our partnerships with technical training programs at West-MEC, EVIT and the community colleges as well as at our own Innovation and Craft Workforce Center,” he says.
McCarthy’s own apprenticeship program encompasses 144 required hours (about three weeks) of training, with 2,000 hours of on-the-job manual training annually. Those enrolled in the program acquire a host of invaluable skills from safety and equipment operations to communication, material handling and much more.
ABA has its own apprenticeship training and programs (registered and approved by the US Department of Labor, State of Arizona Apprenticeship Advisory Committee and (NCCER).
“Our apprenticeship program is the third-largest in the State,” Dunn explains. “And that focuses on electricians and mechanical for the most part, but that’s just a fraction of what we do.”
Advantages for ABA apprentices are a typical starting wage close to 50% of the journeyman rate, increasing around every six months as the apprenticeship progresses. By the end of the ABA training program, apprentices can earn close to 95% of the journeyman wage.
“Training [workers] up, helping them become more efficient and effective, and giving them better tools to be more efficient and effective is where we step in a lot of the time,” Dunn explains. “Erica Lang is our vice president for our educational services side of things. And we’ve gone from two programs, in the last about seven or eight years, to 15 management training programs.”
Apprentices who complete the apprenticeship program benefit by being able to perform as skilled craft workers as well as being placed in front of ABA members, 95% of whom are general contractors in Arizona.
“The upside [of ABA’s training options] is that we’re going to get great workers in these next few years that really are going to excel and have a chance,” Dunn says. “The sky is the limit.”