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Not enough workers to keep up with the Seattle boom

Dozens of projects, from residential buildings, to commercial office space, are in full swing across the Puget Sound. And that means skilled labor like carpenters, steel workers, and crane operators have all the work they can handle. (KIRO Radio/Jillian Raftery)

You can see it all over the Puget Sound: a building boom that’s changing city skylines. But the construction explosion is rapidly eclipsing the number of skilled workers who can get those jobs done.

In the last year, the Seattle metro area added more construction jobs than any other city in the country. Hiring grew by 13 percent, and each month has brought double-digit, year-over-year growth.

“Essentially, that means contractors can’t count on finding somebody experienced who’s unemployed,” said economist Ken Simonson with the Associated General Contractors of America. “If they need another worker they’re either going to have to hire them away from another a competitor, lure them away from another industry, or start training them fresh.”

Simonson saw the pace of construction ramping up and has been warning of worker shortages for almost a year now.

That has some consequences, namely, worker numbers are so tight, it’s a scramble to get big projects like a new high-rise apartment building done on time. And Simonson says that means overtime and other costs are going through the roof.

“Half the companies have been increasing pay in order to attract more workers,” Simonson said. “About a quarter of the companies have been increasing contributions to benefit plans or adding new benefits.”

Many companies are offering bonuses to employees who stick with a project through completion, to discourage poaching.

Why the shortage? Crane operator Denny McKinney says construction trades have a bad public relations problem.

“It’s not viewed as a good career,” McKinney said. “The only good career is if you’re college educated, and that’s where you’re going.”

McKinney says learning a trade is a great option for students who don’t know what they want to study, like him. He went straight into a union apprenticeship after high school.

“You can go make a living and you don’t come out of school with $100,000 in debt right out of the gate,” McKinney said. “Usually, if you’re accepted into an apprenticeship program it’s at no cost to you. During the five years, roughly, that you’re going to train, you’re actually going to make great money and benefits while you’re on the job learning your craft.”

Basically, it’s like your teacher is paying you to come to class.

Not all workers are people who can’t decide on a career path, either.

“I do work with a lot of people with a psychology degree … that have a four year degree. My best friend is one of them. He has a psychology degree from K.U. and he’s a journeyman electrician.”

According to the Operating Engineers Union, apprentice crane operators start at more than $24 per hour. More experienced workers average about $40 per hour.

But it’s not just an image problem the industry is suffering from. There’s another reason for the worker shortage that haunts a lot of older workers. Construction was going at a break-neck pace up until 2006, when hiring hit a peak at 7.7 million workers across the country. Then, everything ground to a halt with the housing meltdown that kicked off five years of layoffs. Millions of people lost their jobs, many of whom left the industry altogether, creating a struggle to get the next generation of skilled craftsmen on board.

So now the challenge is how to show young people that construction is a good career path. Simonson says a lot of people just think construction is about digging in the dirt.

“Construction has really gone much higher tech,” Simonson said. “There are a lot of handheld computers on job sites, a lot of GPS or laser-guided equipment. Some projects are using drones to inspect and document the progress of construction.”

McKinney said he’s loved every minute of his decades-long career up above the city in a tower crane.

“You wake up, you climb up a crane early in the morning, you watch the sun rise on the Cascades,” McKinney said. “You get to see the lake and the sound at the same time, you’re watching all the people come into the city and you’re already there. And then you see the sunset on the Olympics at the end of the evening and it’s pretty nice.

The construction boom is expected to stay strong through next year and the bottom line is that workers are winning.

Anyone interested in apprenticeship opportunities can visit the State Department of Labor and Industry Washington Building Trades Association.

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