By Paul Post
Unlike the Marines, area builders need a whole lot more than “A Few Good Men.”
A severe nationwide labor shortage is being felt locally, too, as understaffed firms can’t keep up with customer demand.
Several factors have contributed to the labor shortage. First and foremost, many skilled workers have aged out of the industry and there hasn’t been enough emphasis put on showing kids the careers this field has to offer, builders say.
“During the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, they were encouraged to go to college, regardless of whether or not that was going to benefit them,” said Matt Whitbeck, owner of Whitbeck Construction in Wilton. “So there’s this big segment of the population that feels that if they aren’t using their diploma for something, it was a waste, even though they’re taking on jobs they’re not passionate about or care about. They take them just to pay back student loans.”
In addition, COVID helped give rise to a whole new type of employment that is much less demanding than construction.
“A lot of people are getting by with driving for Uber and making food deliveries,” Whitbeck said. “You can pick your hours. You don’t have to get out of bed at 6 a.m. every day. You don’t have to work in the hot sun. You just drive your car and turn on the air conditioning. If you don’t feel like working that day you don’t, because you don’t have to clock in or out. It’s just an easy job. You can fulfill the qualifications with little or no education or effort.”
Argyle-based Hunt Companies Inc. does a great deal of construction work for franchise brand restaurants such as McDonald’s and Taco Bell. At full capacity, the business employs 25 people, but currently has just 16, including one part-timer.
“For the construction industry as a whole, hiring was a problem before COVID started,” company president Amie Gonzales said. “Once COVID hit that exacerbated it. It definitely limits the amount of work we can take on at one time. With a full crew we can usually do multiple jobs simultaneously. Now we have to be very selective, not just the size of the job, but the time frame, too.”
Whitbeck Construction owner Matt Whitbeck, of Wilton, said his firm, which specializes in new home construction and remodeling, is about 50 percent understaffed.
“Both my business partner and I are in the field, working a lot, just to try to keep jobs moving ahead that have been booked and scheduled for well over a year,” he said.
Jesse Boucher, president of Wilton-based Kodiak Construction, said “We currently have 12 staff and work with another dozen trade contractors to construct new single-family homes. We’re lacking support staff, the general labor that can help move materials around, pick-up materials from the store, and clean and organize job sites. Each of our trade contractors could use another three to five guys on their teams as well.”
“Before 2020, it was possible to construct houses in five to six months,” he said. “We are currently requesting seven to eight months to provide more time for smaller crews to complete the work.”
Offering a competitive wage, making students at all grade levels aware of rewarding career possibilities, and using the latest technology to make work easier, will help solve the industry’s labor shortage problem, builders say.
“Working conditions are impacted by the weather and the work is very physically demanding,” Boucher said. “People who stay in construction have a passion for creating new things and providing high-quality craftsmanship. Incorporating new technology helps keep people interested.
“For example, battery-powered tools have reduced the need for hauling heavy lead cords and generators for daily tasks. Cloud servers have made it easier to get information from the office to the field. Younger generations want to see efficiency improve, so becoming more efficient helps keep workers engaged.”
At Glens Falls-based VMJR Companies, laborer, carpenter and mason apprentice jobs start out at $16.98, $19.46 and $23.33 per hour, respectively. The worker can obtain journeyman status within five years, which pays $30.86, $35.40 and $38.69 per hour, respectively, plus supplemental benefits for each position.
“We have a core group of 35 field employees and are having a difficult time hiring skilled masons and carpenters,” president and CEO Victor Macri said. “Plus, for office operations we could use two more project managers and project engineers and another administrative assistant. We’ve been searching for over a year to fill these positions.”
Builders do everything possible to find new employees, from traditional techniques such as newspaper ads and job fairs, to newer online strategies including LinkedIn and ZipRecuriter.
“Networking and word-of-mouth are still best,” Macri said. “We pride ourselves on the culture we create for our employees, which helps sell it to others. There’s no easy way to search for employees. You just hope you get lucky.”
Four years ago, the Saratoga Builders Association launched a Construction Industry Task Force comprised of builders, suppliers and officials of the area Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex (WSWHE) Board of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES) with the stated mission of “encouraging young people and adults to consider a career in the construction industry by bringing an awareness to the benefits associated with it.”
WSWHE serves 31 school districts in a five-county region including Saratoga, Warren and Washington..
Subsequent meetings with school superintendents, principals and guidance counselors revealed a major lack of awareness about construction trades opportunities and misconceptions surrounding the work such as being too physical, offering low pay and requiring extra-long work days.
Next, the Task Force held a variety of activities for students such as letting them handle and experiment with tools, hosting a Career Day, visiting construction sites and having BOCES students build a “tiny house” that was featured during the association’s annual Showcase of Homes.
Such efforts proved valuable by exposing kids to jobs that might not have considered otherwise.
Boucher said it’s critical for builders to present their companies as one that offers growth and opportunity to new workers.
“We offer full benefits including paid vacation, paid holidays, mileage reimbursement, a 401K plan, matching contributions, health insurance premium payments and competitive pay,” he said.
Gonzales said building trades give any young, willing worker a chance to go as far as they want to.
“As long as you have the drive and want to do this we can train you, we can give you the skills,” she said. “There is a career path in the construction industry. It depends on the individual. This really is all skill-based. If you can do the work and excel at it, we don’t have a set time frame. You don’t have to be here four years. If you learn it we can move you right on up through.”