By BECKY GILLETTE
The issue of work-force availability in the construction trades continues to be an issue in Mississippi due to many workers retiring combined with fewer young people choosing a career in construction.
“Finding adequate labor is definitely an issue, especially with bigger contracts,” said Bob Wilson, executive director, Associated General Contractors of Mississippi. “It is not as acute as it is in other areas of the country. But it is still an issue we contend with.”
One issue that could impact labor availability is the Trump administration’s crackdown on non-documented residents. Concerns have been raised about the ability to build a wall along the Mexican border because about half of the construction workers in Texas are non-documented, according to Workers Defense Project in Texas, which says that 14 percent of construction workers in the U.S. are non-documented.
“Undocumented workers is a big deal in Texas because of the state’s proximity to Mexico,” Wilson said. “There is some of that in Mississippi, but nothing like in Texas.”
There are several bills before the legislation this session that deal with the issue of work force development, construction being one component of that. Wilson said they are not directly involved in the legislation, but support the work of the Mississippi Construction Education Foundation (MCEF).
Mike Barkett, president of the MCEF, said the current shortage of craft workers in Mississippi is expected to grow significantly in the next two years, according to labor statistics.
“In the next two years, Mississippi alone is going to be short 80,000 craft professionals such as electricians, masons, carpenters and welders,” Barkett said. “MCEF’s responsibility is to recruit and retain a work force. We are doing several things to help. The first level is we are working with all the career and technical schools in the State of Mississippi to prepare young people for opportunities in the construction world.”
MCEF currently has 4,747 high school students in the National Center for Construction Education and Research curricula. Those students are working in their career and technical schools to complete two years in plumbing, carpentry, masonry, electrical, HVAC, etc.
“And we are working with our community colleges to utilize the same NCCER curricula for 2,200 additional students being trained to enter the work force,” Barkett said. “The second phase of recruiting and training is we are working with our apprentices, employed ladies and gentlemen working for an employer who is training them. We have 285 apprentices in our program getting further education and training.”
Recently MCEF was involved in the rollout of a comprehensive program Building Futures in Mississippi.
“It is not just another plan, but an initiative, a journey towards placing and passing mileposts in an effort to create a more competitive state in education, economic climate and a business climate,” Barkett said. “It is going to focus on our goals, which are promoting career and technical opportunities among young people, recruiting top talent that contributes to the fundamental growth and development of prospective employers, and then providing comprehensive classroom and on-job training that creates success for workers at all levels.
This is the time to step up to the plate and develop the work force we need to prevent shortages.”
Desire alone isn’t enough. Barkett said there are people who may want to work in construction, but don’t have training or experience.
“Employers want a trained work force,” he said. “We have to start recruiting construction professionals at an early age.”
Barkett said he thinks the public is largely unaware of looming shortages. It might even look like there are plenty of workers. But you have states recruiting workers from other states that then causes shortages in the state the workers came from.
“Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas are all trying to build a lot of stuff in a hurry,” he said. “Workers in Mississippi are being taken from Mississippi to Alabama. Alabama workers are being taken to Louisiana. There are not enough guys overall in the region.”
Barkett said when the Great Recession hit, some construction professionals decided to retire or start a new career.
“What we are trying to do is rebuild that work force,” he said. “The construction industry as a whole is rebounding from the Great Recession. Things are looking better. We are optimistic the industry has the work to do, but we are concerned we don’t have the labor to get the work done in commercial and industrial fields such as hotels, casinos, nuclear plants and oil refineries.”