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Is construction hiring or firing?

Newly-trained workers are finding jobs out there

Many construction leaders are at a loss. The industry is shedding jobs at a record pace. Yet, construction education programs around the state are reporting that their graduates are finding work.

“I’m as perplexed as anyone,” said Desmond Fletcher, a director and associate professor in the School of Construction at the University of Southern Mississippi. “I thought (construction employment) would be up last December.”

Last year was a banner year for the Mississippi Construction Education Foundation with approximately 450 individuals going through the program.

Last year was a banner year for the Mississippi Construction Education Foundation with approximately 450 individuals going through the program.

However, Fletcher said he has been presently surprised at his graduates’ success in finding jobs. His students are encouraged to find a summer internship. Those who cannot are assigned an elective class instead. This year, the Southern Miss program had 75 interns, “out the roof” according to Fletcher. Only two students were forced to take the elective class.

Perry Nations, executive director of the Associated General Contractors of Mississippi (AGC of Mississippi), said there has been attrition among contractors, but managers and skilled craftsmen are still in demand.

“Some of these owners have cashed it in, retired, and taken it to the house,” Nations said. “Most are not coming back, either.”

But, Nations said before the “big bust,” firms had a dire shortage of skilled tradesmen and senior managers. This shortage, in essence, counteracts the drop in construction numbers due to the troubled economy. Firms are hiring these newly trained workers, getting ready for when the economy — and the industry — rebounds.

Gary Baumbauer, president of the Mississippi Construction Education Foundation (MCEF) is more pessimistic about future employment, worried that the shortage of trained workers and managers will perhaps worsen and cause problems when building activity increases.

However, he is optimistic about the current situation. Backed by nine major trade associations, the MCEF’s mission is to promote careers, recruit capable individuals and train a quality workforce for the construction industry in Mississippi.

Baumbauer reports last year was a banner year with approximately 450 individuals coming through the foundation’s programs — “a very high number,” he said. “And, contractors are holding on to these students.”

Baumbauer said enrollment among high school students in MCEF’s programs is gaining. Some of this he attributes to a positive change in the general perception of construction work. He was pleased when he recently heard Dr. Tom Burnham, state superintendent of education, say he believed vocational-technical students should get the same focus as those students seeking traditional college degrees.

“He seems very supportive of the hands-on learners,” Baumbauer said. “It is frustrating sometimes. People don’t see the tremendous career opportunities construction offers. You go out there and preach the story, but the perception remains.”

Fletcher says he, too, feels that construction is becoming more attractive as a career option.

“We’re seeing more and more of our students who have crossed over from another discipline,” Fletcher said. “And, we’ve been seeing that for the last five years or so.”

He is also enthused to see standalone construction programs in higher education. More and more colleges and universities are offering programs that are not embedded in engineering or architectural programs. Michigan State University now offers a Ph.D. construction program, he said.

While all of this is positive, there is no denying the current construction employment picture, which worsens the closer to home one looks. According to a July report from the Associated Builders and Contractors, the national Construction Backlog Indicator increased to seven months last May. All regions of the nation saw backlogs lengthen — except the South.

A July survey from the AGC of America was more sobering. It found construction employment declined in 285 out of 337 metropolitan areas from June 2009 to June 2010. And, topping the list was Pascagoula. The Coast city lost approximately 2,000 construction workers, representing an attrition rate of -32 percent. By comparison, Biloxi-Gulfport lost 5 percent of its construction workforce while Jackson shed 4 percent.

Ken Simonson, AGC of America chief economist, expressed concern over these numbers as stimulus money ($135 billion) is running out.

“The overall lack of demand for new construction is hurting more than the stimulus is helping at this point,” Simonson said. “While more metropolitan areas have started adding construction jobs, most are still experiencing losses nearly four years after the construction downturn began.”

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