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Labor shortages plague construction, shipbuilding, service

Coast businesses and industries are continuing to face difficulties attracting enough workers to fill the ranks. The labor crunch is being seen particularly in construction, shipbuilding and the service sector.

The biggest factor is that affordable housing to buy or rent is very scarce due to the amount of housing destroyed in Hurricane Katrina and difficulties rebuilding the housing because of high insurance costs.

“There is a need for housing here,” says Royce Cumbest, CEO of Merchants & Marine Bank, Pascagoula, and chairman of the Jackson County Economic Development Foundation. “The Gulf Coast Business Council is working very hard right now trying to put together a plan for housing for middle class working people. The Economic Development Foundation here in Jackson County is working with various entities over here to see what we can do to access and help with that situation. We really need more housing right now for our businesses and industries to be able to hire and maintain the workforce that we need.”

Cumbest says the sooner housing can be rebuilt for the workforce, the faster the Coast will recover.

Not as acute

While there is still a labor shortage, it isn’t as acute as it was after the storm, nor even a year ago.

“Certainly it is not as serious as it was,” says Mark Landry, branch director, Gulfport WIN Job Center. “We are still seeing a good bit of the service sector suffering especially this time of year because so many students are preparing to go back to school. But it is not as bad as even six months ago. We still get a lot of requests for job orders from employers. But they are having a little better luck finding applicants now.

It is getting closer to what it was prior to Katrina.”

A lot of employers have raised their rates of pay. That has been necessary in the post-Katrina labor environment. The jobs most difficult to fill, Landry says, are the entry-level jobs in the service sector.

“The majority of the employers have tried to be more competitive as wage rates settled down after the storm,” Landry says. “A lot of employers have brought their wage rates up. After the storm, wage rates went haywire with out-of-area contractors and relief worker positions that paid higher than the normal wage. Now those have virtually disappeared, employers are finding to keep their trained folks they have to be competitive on the pay rate.”

The latest figures show unemployment rates in Harrison County at 6.2% and Hancock County at 5.9%. Landry says that is close to the normal trend for summers before Katrina.

The biggest shortages are being seen in the metal trades, particularly the shipbuilding industry. Landry describes that shortage as “severe.” There are 1,500 positions available in Harrison County alone.

Currently, federal training dollars are available for Coast workers to upgrade their skills or get new skills. Landry says 300 to 400 people normally in the workforce are taking advantage of opportunities for free career and technical training.

“It takes them out of the job market,” Landry said. “The training is offered by not only the community colleges, but private gaming schools and truck driver-training companies. It takes them out of workforce for a while depending on the training program they are in. A lot of that is available, and people are taking advantage of it. Training ranges from nursing to computer-aided drafting and design, and the geospatial training that is out there. There is also training for the metal trades to try to meet some of the demand for the shipbuilding industry along the Coast.”

Larry Barnett, executive director of the Harrison County Development, says the shortage of metal trade workers — especially welders — is found not just on the Gulf Coast but across the country. The average age of welders in the U.S. right now is 55 years old, which means more young people need to be recruited into the profession.

“I don’t know as parents that we usually encourage our kids to learn a trade,” Barnett says. “We have programs through the WIN Job Center and the community college that will train people to become welders. That goes back to telling our school children that it is probably not a bad idea to develop a trade, and how about welding? Look at what happened in Minnesota where a steel structure collapsed. You can’t get a robot to go out and repair a bridge. You must have people to go out there. With the shortage of welders, that is an issue down the road.”

Affordable housing barrier

The lack of affordable housing continues to be the biggest barrier to workforce availability on the Coast.

“Employers are having trouble getting people because there is not a whole lot of affordable housing for residents to live in,” says Joy Corrie, supervisor of the WIN Job Center in Biloxi. “But they have rebuilt a lot and are in the process of rebuilding housing that is more affordable for working class people. But the housing situation has been a hindrance, definitely.”

Corrie says entry-level jobs in the service industry are the hardest to fill. With the price of gas and cost of housing up so much, entry-level positions usually don’t pay enough for people to make it month to month. While businesses like fast food restaurants were paying bonuses and salaries of $9 to $10 per hour after the hurricane, those wage rates have fallen somewhat since.

In Hancock County, there has been good response to jobs that will be available soon at the largest new private economic development in the county in years.

“We just landed a new company, PSL North America, a steel pipe plant, that is in the process of building a plant in the Port Bienville Industrial Park,” says Mike Turner, director of economic development, Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission. “They are going to employ 300. They are currently in a building they are using as temporary office space while they get up and running. They will begin to hire their on-the-ground workforce in the next 30 days. They are getting real good response from the MESC (Mississippi Employment Security Commission) and PRCC (Pearl River Community College) in helping find workers.”

While finding an adequate workforce is an issue for everyone, Turner says it helps that the jobs at PSL North America pay on average $50,000 per year.

“It seems to us from the preliminary response there is a good interest from the local workforce,” Turner says.

Affordable housing availability is an issue. But Hancock County can draw from Pearl River County to the north, which has lower housing prices and insurance rates than housing closer to the Coast.

Turner says the biggest challenge for Hancock County employers is finding workers for the low end of the scale. He hasn’t seen employers paying only minimum wage for a while.

“People understand it is a labor market,” he says. “They can get a good wage whether in construction or the manufacturing sector.”

Turner says the availability of houses for sale in Hancock County is good, but it is harder to find rentals and lease properties.

“A good number of people in the workforce need and want to use rental property, and that is still somewhat a problem,” Turner says. “The cost of insurance for multi-unit housing is still a factor behind why more rental housing hasn’t been built.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.


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