By Christine Graf
According to a 2020 survey conducted by the Associated General Contractors of America, 81 percent of construction firms are finding it difficult to find employees. This trend has worsened in 2021 due in part to extended unemployment benefits that have been made available by the federal government during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The cost of labor has gone up 25 to 30 percent. It’s putting a lot of people out of business. We’re competing with the government for employees because people are getting paid to stay home while millions of jobs go unfilled,” said Todd Drake, owner of Cornerstone Construction. His company works throughout the Capital Region and the Adirondacks.
“It’s absolutely outrageous policy and fiscally disastrous and quite frankly socially disastrous because it’s creating complacency among people who should be working. Certainly there are those who have been able to find work that they are capable of doing. I certainly get that. But for the vast majority of people, they aren’t even calling. I know businesses—including ourselves—that run ads and get no responses at all. None.”
The origins of the labor shortage started long before the pandemic and can be traced back to 2008 recession when the bottom fell out of the construction industry and skilled workers moved to other professions, those in the industry say. The problem was compounded by a reduction in the number of young people seeking careers in the trades.
“This is not new, and it’s not pandemic related,” said Thomas Albrecht, Sr., president of Hilltop Construction Co. in Hudson Falls, of the labor woes in the industry.
“Three years ago, the age of the average construction worker was 42 years old. They are aging out, and there haven’t been a lot of people to replace them. It’s just a shortage of folks going into the trades industry.” he said.
He said the shortage will continue unless trades are promoted as viable career paths for students while they are still in high school. It was for that reason that he was involved in a program at Hudson Falls High School designed to help direct students identify career paths and also served on the advisory board of BOCES.
Doug Ford, vice president of sales and purchasing at Curtis Lumber, is committed to promoting trades to high school students. He is one of the leaders of the Workforce Development Taskforce, a collaboration between Curtis Lumber and Saratoga Builders. Their mission is to bring awareness to the career opportunities and benefits that are available in the construction/trade industries. Stakeholders include Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex (WSWHE) BOCES, Saratoga Economic Development Corporation, Habitat for Humanity, and Workforce Development Institute.
“The wages right now in the trades are very attractive, and you can get into the trades without necessarily having to have a college degree. There is training that will happen on the job. I’m not against college, but college is not the only option,” said Ford. “There’s a lot of misconceptions around the trades, and there’s a lot of technology that’s part of the trades. You can get into the trades and never touch a hammer or a tool.”
When the taskforce was established three years ago, representatives met with principals, superintendents, and guidance counselors from numerous schools in Saratoga County.
Based on the feedback they received, they created activities designed for middle and high school students from two pilot school districts, Stillwater and Waterford-Halfmoon.
Activities have included a career day at Curtis Lumber, meetings with local builders, and involvement in a tiny house project. The task force also arranges job shadowing and internship opportunities. Upcoming events include half-day tours of job sites where homes are under construction.
The Workforce Initiative Taskforce has been so successful that additional school districts are asking to participate in the program. Taskforce members recently visited Shenendehowa High School’s new technology wing, and they are willing to work with schools outside of Saratoga County.
In May, they are piloting a new initiative called Trades in the Schools at Stillwater High School. Representative from Curtis Lumber and Whitbeck Construction will go into the school and meet with graduating seniors.
“We are going to tell them about real open positions that we have, and they will get to interview with hiring managers on the spot,” said Pam Stott, Ford’s executive assistant who plays a vital role in the taskforce. She said it is likely that some students will receive job offers that day.
It is because Curtis Lumber owner Jay Curtis is so committed to the task force that he allows both Ford and Stott devote a large number of work hours to it.
“He supports us in this initiatives and recognizes the importance of being a leader in the community,” said Ford.
Said Albrecht, “It has to start in the high school with the counselors who direct these young folk—whether it is into college or directly into the trades. While college is good for some, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s great for everyone. I’m not a college kid, and I have a success story of being in business for 45 years. The point is that we don’t have to be college bound to be successful.”
He believes it is critical for trade industry leaders to become invested in the approximately 30 percent of U.S. high school graduates who do not attend college.
“We need to track where these kids are going and lift them up and support them and direct them into a career path whether it be the trades or something else,” he said.
Hilltop Construction is experiencing the impact of the labor shortage firsthand and has been struggling for the past several years to hire workers. The company has 30 employees, and demand for their services is so high that they are turning away jobs on a regular basis.
“It’s absolutely a struggle,” said Albrecht. “We hire year round, and we’re always advertising and looking for good people. The job pay scale has increased, and it’s grown in such a way that it’s a little more inviting. Hilltop Construction promotes career opportunities. It’s not just a job. It a career and an opportunity to be part of a team that has one objective—customer satisfaction.”
During the next five years, he expects wages in the industry to increase significantly. He also anticipates other incentives, including flex time ,being offered.