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Construction Cos. Have Second Job: Finding Skilled Workers

When the recession hit San Diego, Taylor Trim and Supply Inc. downsized from 168 employees to about 46, with many of them switching careers, taking unemployment or leaving the area.

The Escondido business, which provides finish carpentry products and services, wasn’t the only one that lost skilled workers during the recession; others in the construction industry did, too.

The economy has since rebounded but the availability of skilled workers has not and that is affecting the bottom line of many companies in San Diego.

In response, Tim Taylor, founder and chief executive officer of Taylor Trim and Supply, started an apprenticeship program on each of his company’s multifamily projects, buying apprentices tools and teaching them the trade.

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‘Can’t Train Them Fast Enough’

“I can’t train them fast enough,” he said. “We still have a lot of work, but it ebbs and flows so when a large project comes to an end, these guys will start looking for other work … It’s a challenge. There’s not a good resource to collect good employees.”

Even with this program, Taylor pays his employees overtime to finish jobs and has to match or increase wages, benefits, sick pay and holiday pay to stay competitive.

Mary Kathawa, owner and president of Pro Wall Lath & Plaster Inc. in Escondido, said she’s turned customers down because her workers don’t want to work in certain areas.

She started an incentive program where family members and friends can get paid to try out the trade, but it hasn’t been that effective. Thus, her workers are overworked, similar to Taylor’s employees.

“People are tired and it’s difficult right now,” she said. “I’m not seeing it getting a whole lot better.”

Walt Fegley, former president of the Associated General Contractors’ San Diego chapter, is president of Reno Contracting Inc. in Mission Valley. Because of the recession (coupled with an aging workforce), companies like his find themselves training the next generation of workers.

“It’s hard to get 20-30 years of experience without 20-30 years of experience,” Fegley said. “Contractors are limited in their ability to grow because they can’t find skilled carpenters or sheet metal installers or concrete guys or they can’t find competent project managers or estimators in the office. The further you go with untrained workers, the higher the risk.”

And while many people remain out of work, they lack the needed skills.

“I think people were asleep at the switch,” Fegley said. “Big contractors and leaders in organization didn’t develop the necessary pipeline we need. We’ll drop back and do that and in the interim. People say they can span that with technology. At the end of the day, we need to train people who know how to build, how to problem solve.”

Fegley said vocational training is provided through some local organizations, some local colleges and a few high schools. Otherwise, contractors are always looking to fill skilled labor positions and consistently advertising for them online.

Stereotype Stigma

George Welch, faculty chair of the construction management program at the NewSchool of Architecture and Design, said he struggles to find applicants for the construction management scholarship whereas the architectural scholarship receives at least 10 applicants each year.

However, because his students are well trained going into the market, they get jobs in the field. Even so, he said society needs to rethink its stereotypes about construction workers.

“If the barista looks down her nose at a guy with a carpenter belt, something is wrong,” Welch said. “He’s making $30 an hour. We assign statuses to various jobs. I need somebody who can clean floors in warehouses, change lights, wash windows and earn a decent living doing it by making sure they have the skills and training to do those things. That’s one of our biggest issues for our generation: who’s going to do the work? We can’t all be managers.”

Alan Nevin, chief economist at Xpera Group, a construction consulting firm, said the Hispanic labor force, a large portion of the construction industry labor, left in 2008 and 2009. Without that supply of labor for building residential homes or renovations, the trades need young people with proper training. He said the saving grace right now for overworked skilled laborers is the lack of building in San Diego.

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