The Journal Gazette
Thursday, December 03, 2015 5:56 am

Workers in high demand

Sherry Slater | The Journal Gazette

Construction projects are popping up across northeast Indiana like fuzzy, yellow dandelions.

While steelworkers erect the skeleton of the $100 million Ash Skyline Plaza downtown, site work is set to begin for the $27 million Cityscape Flats residential project just a few blocks away. Work also continues across town on the $16 million conference center expansion at Memorial Coliseum.

Last week, General Motors announced a project of staggering proportions: a $1.2 billion expansion and upgrade of its Allen County truck assembly plant. Parkview Health officials also last week announced they are embarking on the design stage for their $80 million cancer center. Earlier in the month, FCC (Adams) announced plans to invest $129 million to expand its Berne automatic transmission clutch factory. 

Now that the dollars are committed, the only thing left to do is find the raw materials and manpower to transform these visions into reality. But that might be easier said than done. 

As the economy heats up, the construction industry faces a shortage of people trained to do the specialized work that major building projects require. The number of people entering the apprenticeship pipeline and various training programs in recent years isn’t expected to be nearly enough to offset growing demand, experts say. 

Two workers are retiring for every one entering the profession, according to data from NCCER. The Florida nonprofit was created in 1996 as the National Center for Construction Education and Research.

"It’s a real problem," said Brad Benhart, associate clinical professor in Purdue Polytechnic’s building construction management department. "We’re at the threshold of a massive retirement of skilled-trades workers at all levels."

The worker shortage is already being felt locally on projects including the Memorial Coliseum expansion. Randy Brown, general manager, has heard the project’s managers express concern during construction updates.

"They’ve been able to fill the slots," he said, "but they’ve had to work extra hard to do so."

Next generation

Benhart teaches students who earn bachelor’s degrees and become construction supervisors. This year’s graduates each received three to six job offers, complete with signing bonuses, he said.

Purdue’s four-year program collaborates with both union and nonunion employers.

The worker shortage extends from the apprenticeship level to upper management, Benhart said. It takes five to seven years to learn a trade, so making up for the shortage won’t be done quickly. 

Stephanie Hilton, apprenticeship manager for Ivy Tech Community College Northeast, said not enough students are entering the local training program. 

"And the problem is, I don’t think a lot of people think of it as an option," she said.

The Fort Wayne and South Bend campuses combined had 462 students enrolled in the trades program for the spring semester. She was unable to provide a number just for the local campus.

Hilton works with leaders of seven skilled trades organizations, helping their apprentices navigate a three- to five-year program that leads to an associate degree without any tuition or school loans. The apprenticeship programs cover the costs. Students also get paid to learn.

"It’s a career, it’s not just a job," she said. "They’re teaching you a lifelong skill."

Starting wages for the apprentices are $11 an hour or more with full benefits and the promise of annual raises, Hilton said. Journeymen, who have completed training, can earn $25 to $35 an hour. 

Most students in the Ivy Tech apprenticeship program are in their late 20s, but Hilton is trying to increase the number who enroll right out of high school.

Chris Roberts is her ally. Roberts is a construction trades instructor at the Career Academy at Anthis. 

Although the vocational school is part of Fort Wayne Community Schools, it pulls students from 22 feeder high schools throughout Allen and surrounding counties. Even so, the local program that will graduate about 50 this year can’t keep up with the demand.

"Companies are calling nonstop for our students," Roberts said. "We can’t fill all the openings."

Construction isn’t considered as glamorous as it used to be, Roberts said. Combine that with fewer kids growing up with construction-worker fathers and fewer industrial arts programs in schools, and many kids who might excel at the trades fail to discover their natural ability, he said.

"It’s a growing problem," he said. "We’re dying for more people to know about us."

Quality, cost

Shortages sometimes prompt employers to lower hiring standards, which can compromise quality.

But Purdue’s Benhart isn’t worried. He believes architects, engineers and construction companies across the state will work hard to protect their reputations.

Ivy Tech’s Hilton doesn’t believe any of the unions she works with would allow quality to slide either.

"They hold themselves to a specific standard, and they would do nothing to jeopardize that standard," she said. "They have a huge amount of pride in what they do, and I can’t imagine they’d put anyone unqualified on a job site. There are safety issues."

Benhart said projects could take longer to finish though, as contractors shuffle crews from one work site to another in an attempt to keep up with schedules.

Missing deadlines would be a new experience for some skilled workers.

Mike Avila, a representative for the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local No. 4, said that in his 19 years in the trade, local bricklayers have been able to complete every job on time.

Benhart has advice to any company that wants to ensure its project gets priority over others: Pay promptly. Those are the jobs that attract the best workers, said the former contractor.

Speaking of money, Benhart expects construction wages to go up as the number of projects begins to overwhelm the supply of skilled workers. 

"It’s a matter of supply and demand, especially for seasoned veterans," he said, adding that highly experienced workers who are able to mentor and train younger employees will be able to demand the highest wages.

Although many people assume that union wages are always higher than non-union, Benhart said non-union contractors’ ability to pay workers whatever they want can also translate to paying the most experienced workers more than union wages.

As wages increase, so will the final price tag of various construction projects, Benhart said. He thinks organizations such as GM and Parkview would have been savvy enough to include escalating costs in their project calculations because prices have already started to inch upward.

But some slow-moving companies could face sticker shock, he said. Those are the ones that might have gotten board approval for a set budget a couple of years ago but are only now trying to bid the work. Building prices, Benhart said, are noticeably higher now than they were in 2013. 

Darryl Esterline, the business representative for Sheet Metal Workers International Association Local 20, said his colleagues work closely with business owners to build realistic budgets for potential construction projects.

As a result, skilled trades supervisors often know about proposed projects 18 to 24 months before they are publicly announced, he said. That knowledge has prompted local union officials to ramp up recruitment efforts.

As president of Northeast Indiana Building Trades, Esterline helped organize a two-day apprenticeship fair in the middle of May. About 175 people showed serious interest in pursuing the career option.

Esterline can call on about 3,500 sheet metal workers throughout Indiana to staff jobs in the region. About 400 of them live in northeast Indiana.  About 400 work-ready sheetmetal worker apprentices are in the state’s pipeline, he said.

That includes people who are in their first through fifth years of training.

The union has resources that would allow it to train up to 700 more apprentices, if needed.

Esterline doesn’t know of any of the 19 trades he represents that don’t need more apprentices.

But he doesn’t know of any that has a more critical need than the others. Retirements are expected to hit them all equally, he said.

In his role with the Sheet Metal Workers, Esterline had already received about a dozen applications by the end of last week. "And the phone’s still ringing," he said.

How many new apprentices would Esterline like to recruit?

"I’d like to have as many as it takes," he said, "to meet the needs of the construction uptick we’re hearing about."


Share this article

Email story

Subscribe to our newsletters

* indicates required