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Mississippi shortage of construction workers becoming more acute

By BECKY GILLETTE

With U.S. unemployment rates at the lowest levels seen in 17 years, the shortage of Mississippi construction workers has gone from bad to worse.

Mississippi Construction Education Foundation (MCEF) President Mike Barkett said the construction worker shortage has become more acute because the economy has picked up.

“There are more and more opportunities for construction contracts, but we don’t have the trained workforce to do the work,” Barkett said. “We have to do something about it. What we are trying today do with MCEF is meet that need by training the workforce specifically for the jobs out there that are available. We are working with Career Technical Education (CTE) partners at the secondary level to help high school students right out of high school find a job and a career path to follow. We have 5,000 now enrolled in the CTE program.”

Out of the 961 graduates from CTE programs in 2017 in secondary schools, 29 percent went into work in the construction industry. And Barkett said that number is steadily increasing every year.

“More students are directly entering the field out of high school than ever before,” Barkett said. “They are stepping into jobs where the minimum pay is $12 to $14 an hour. Once they have some skills and training under their belt, they can command a higher salary and can go into management or supervisory roles. We are having trouble with attracting millennials to craft jobs, but they are going to estimating and supervisory roles. We are seeing more and more of that than before.”

MCEF also has a free service that allows high school seniors and community college students who have gone through training programs to post their resumes online. Contractors can go online and find workers who have been trained to fill shortages.

Associated General Contractors (AGC) of Mississippi Executive Director Bob Wilson said the shortage of construction workers is a big, big issue in Mississippi and across the country.

“There are even some of our members who could take on more work and employ more people, but they just don’t have the trained employees they need,” Wilson said.

Wilson said the shortages have gotten worse despite the fact that skilled construction workers can often make more money than college graduates. A construction crafts salary survey from 2015 indicates experienced construction laborers such as commercial carpenters, HVAC technicians and plumbers can earn more than $50,000 per year, while crane operators and project supervisors can make more than $70,000 per year.

“There is a misconception the construction is all hard work digging ditches,” Wilson said. “But with technology and all the advances that have been made, that is just not the case anymore.”

Wilson said Mississippi has virtually no employment; everyone is employed who wants to be employed. And yet there are a large number of employers who have positions that are unfilled.

“It would be good to try to publicize some of the positions that are available so people have some idea of what they could get involved with,” Wilson said. “A lot of the openings are entry level, but the salaries are better than what many people receive after completing a four-year college degree. And with construction, you don’t end up with enormous student loans to pay off. Construction is a great option for kids coming out of community college and high school.”

And this isn’t all about hammers and nails. Wilson said there is a huge demand for people to work on the technology end of construction.

“Technology is going crazy in construction, and it is a great place for people to work,” Wilson said. “There is a huge market for college graduates to come into the technology part of construction.”

Another advantage for people going into construction is that if you go to work for a construction company and show that you will show up and do a good job, you can often get employers to help pay for college tuition.

Wilson said there is also now a state program that will provide credits to employers who will hire people who are not working or underemployed. The credits are based on the employees’ salary levels.

A large part of what AGC does is safety training. It is becoming increasingly important to have training conducted in Spanish, as well as English.

“Bi-lingual is continuing to be more and more of an issue,” Wilson said. “AGC in Dallas\Ft Worth has six or seven trainers on staff and all are bi-lingual. They have trained 50,000 people in the past few years.”

AGC now also offers online safety and training modules covering issues such a safety, human resources, sexual harassment, etc. People can go through the training modules on their own, and a lot of the apps center around games. For example, a training on safety harnesses won’t let someone proceed to the next level until he has followed the correct procedures.

“This mirrors what kids are doing with computer games,” he said. “It really holds their attention and motivates them to get to the next level.”

Home Builders Association of Mississippi President John Travis, who owns Travis Constructors LLC, Ridgeland, said labor is a problem everywhere.

“As a home builder, I use my own subcontractors multiple times,” Travis said. “I’m familiar with their work and quality. I think in Mississippi one of the big problems we are having is quality workmanship. You can find labor, but we are looking for quality in our workmanship.”

Travis said there can be a domino effect. When you have trouble finding one subcontractor, it can put you behind getting the job done.

“The other thing we focus on at Home Builders of Mississippi is working with vo-tech,” Travis said. “We are working with a lot of community colleges to train young people to work in the construction industry. The millennials aren’t quite the same as baby boomers as far as work ethics. We are trying to instill in the young folks the work ethics which are imperative to making a building career.”

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