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Industry continues struggle to attract people to trades

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by Jan K. Allen

SBJ Contributing Writer

Construction workers are needed across the board in all trades, according to employees in the industry. A healthy construction market, coupled with a low unemployment rate, has created shortages in qualified employees, said Dave Karr, assistant director of marketing and sales for Conco.

Conco is actively working to hire truck drivers and has had trouble finding skilled people to fill the jobs available, Karr said.

There are still trade schools and apprentice programs going on in some fields, but not as many as there once was. There isn't the focus on the trades that there used to be, Karr said.

Members of the Springfield Contractors Association make the annual trek to area high schools to promote interest in construction among students. Several volunteers are involved in the effort that runs in conjunction with the Salute to Design and Construction Week each fall.

"We're trying to attract young people to make a career choice in construction," said Sheryl Letterman, director of the association.

But there seem to be fewer people making the business a career choice these days, construction professionals agree.

SCA, Ozarks Technical Community College and the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce have been working together to provide training programs in needed fields, according to Mary Beeson, project manager at Meco Systems.

Kathy Baer, employment director at SCA, said heavy equipment operators and skilled carpenters are desperately needed. Some general contractors are also looking for job-site superintendents.

"This year is worse than it has been in the past, finding skilled labor," Baer said. "Everybody already has a job."

There are unskilled people available, Baer said, but there is high demand and competition for them, as well.

At Labor Ready, an employment service that provides workers for the construction industry, as well as many other fields, the volume is up 15 percent to 20 percent over last year, largely due to construction, according to Alan Hightower, branch manager.

Hightower said carpenters, concrete workers, brick layers and equipment operators are in great demand.

Labor Ready opens its doors at 5 a.m. Anyone who shows up for a construction job can usually go to work that day, Hightower said.

The company charges the contractor a percentage over the worker's wages and pays all compensation to the worker, plus takes care of workers' compensation premiums and does withholding.

Although Labor Ready has a few skilled carpenters and heavy-equipment operators in the labor pool, 80 percent of the workers it hires are unskilled, High-tower said.

Both Southwest Missouri State University and OTC have programs aimed at the trades, but it seems fewer people are taking advantage of these opportunities in recent years. Another avenue for training which could be a major untapped source of people is the National Guard.

The National Guard has more than 60 different classifications connected to the construction trades. Trainees are not only paid while they learn, but are often eligible for a bonus in certain fields, according to Sgt. Mark Halley, recruiting officer.

Heavy-equipment operator, plumber, carpenter, mason and electrician are just a few of the career categories people can choose.

Meanwhile, it's going to take a community effort with people in related fields to generate more interest in construction, according to Beeson. The opportunities are unlimited, she added.

Meco Systems is experiencing a shortage of framers and finish carpenters on current projects. The problem in finding skilled people is not just local. The same issues are being faced industry-wide on a national basis, Beeson said.

Though the shortage has driven wages up in many segments of the industry, contractors still have to scurry to find skilled people willing to work.

"If you are in the construction field and you are unemployed, it's because you're not looking," Karr said.

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