Star 200: Southern Arizona's builders short on skilled workers

Many electricians, masons, plumbers left during recession
2013-04-28T00:00:00Z Star 200: Southern Arizona's builders short on skilled workersGabriela Rico Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
April 28, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The recovery in the local construction industry could be dampened by a shortage of skilled workers, pushing up the price of commercial and residential developments, officials say.

After six years of a virtual hiatus in construction activity, many electricians, masons and plumbers moved on to other lines of work or locations.

"We are very aware of the challenges for the builders in finding skilled workers," said David Godlewski, president of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association. "It is the looming issue."

There has been "tremendous recovery" in the housing market in the past 12 months, with home prices rising by about 17 percent, said Ginger Kneup, a local residential market analyst and owner of Bright Future Real Estate Research LLC.

"This growth has enabled the industry to hire many more workers, as evidenced by the strong January employment statistics," she said of the 6 percent increase in construction employment.

"Our problem is that in the last six years many skilled construction professionals found work in other areas or retired from the industry altogether given the lack of demand," Kneup said. "So many of the people who used to work in the industry are no longer available, and we have a six-year gap in new hires and training."

Pima County employment statistics show that in 2009, construction jobs dropped by 27 percent over the previous year.

SAHBA is surveying homebuilders to see if the demand is in specific specialties, and is working with job-training programs to help fill the void, Godlewski said.

"Higher home prices is something we want to try to avoid," he said. "Affordability of new homes is critical. We don't want to outpace what the market can afford."

SAHBA also is lobbying for immigration reform and a construction-related guest-worker program, Godlewski said.

Tom Dunn is Southern Arizona director of the nonprofit Arizona Builders Alliance, which provides training and apprentice programs for construction workers.

The big voids for commercial builders are electricians, plumbers and HVAC mechanics, he said.

Of the current skilled workforce, 65 percent are baby boomers and will be gone within 10 years, Dunn said.

"We're there," he said of reaching a critical shortage. "Some of our companies are having a hard time filling their jobs."

There are about 125 Tucson-area students enrolled in the alliance's four-year training program, Dunn said.

Labor is not the construction industry's only challenge.

"This labor shortage is in its nascent stages but is already impacting building pricing," Kneup said. "It is difficult to isolate by how much because it is working in tandem with material shortages, suppliers having trouble ramping up production to meet the new demand, as well as increasing land prices."

The wages construction workers can command may also be an issue, said Jim Kuliesh, president and CEO of the Alliance of Construction Trades, which represents 240 subcontractors.

"We haven't really been hit hard like the bigger cities," he said. "When we really start picking up, we'll find out."

The average age of skilled construction workers is 49, Kuliesh said, and not enough young people are entering the trade.

"Back in the day, it was rush, rush, rush," he said of the building frenzy fueled by plentiful labor - skilled or otherwise.

"Now the wages will have to go up for skilled workers," Kuliesh said. "And that's a good thing."

He called it a positive sign that building permits are once again being issued at a healthy pace.

"I have to believe we do have the labor to support that."

Andy Warren, president of Maracay Homes, said homebuilders are doing more work with fewer workers, but he doesn't see a crisis.

"It was generally anticipated with the improvement in the market," he said. "It's not as if we're surprised."

Maracay has about a half-dozen communities under construction in Dove Mountain, Tangerine Crossings, Rancho Sahuarita, Oro Valley and the Ventana Canyon area.

Rather than a chronic skill shortage in a particular trade, Warren said homebuilders are experiencing "little problems here and there. It's more like hot spots."

Warren said the market will be able to handle small price increases because they'll be added to already-depressed prices.

Even with a tightened workforce, the housing recovery is welcome, he said.

"It's a good problem to have," he said. "We'll work through it."

Contact reporter Gabriela Rico at grico@azstarnet.com or 573-4232.

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