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Shortage of skilled labor continues in construction

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by Jan K. Allen

SBJ Contributing Writer

Springfield has experienced a shortage in skilled tradespeople in the past few years, and members of the industry are working to attract young people to the trades to overcome the shortage.

"More training programs need to be developed and funded by the industry," said Sheryl Letterman, executive of Springfield Contractors Association.

Local contractors say the shortage has caused wages and benefits to increase as construction companies compete to hire and keep skilled workers. Competition is fierce, driving wages up and prices down, according to Larry Ruckman, owner of CIR Electric Company.

Ruckman said that anyone in Springfield who wants to work is working, and he expects the trend to continue through 1999. He added that demand is up for both union and nonunion journeymen electricians.

Many major contractors, who bid jobs all over the country, have skilled people who go with the jobs, creating another drain on the local pool of skilled labor, although other regions have experienced the same problem, Ruckman said.

Both union and nonunion electrical contractors have apprentice schools in Springfield which are attracting a fair share of young people, according to Ruckman, but there is still a need for skilled craftsmen in this area because of the healthy environment.

The plumbing trade is holding its own now, according to Danny Edwards, owner of Connelly Plumbing, but this summer may find the industry hurting for skilled people. The Local 178 Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Union, which maintains a school and supplies instructors, has already taken in five new apprentices this year for its five-year program.

If area construction continues as it has the past few years, there will still be a shortage during the peak building season this year, Edwards said.

Ozarks Technical Community College has worked with the industry to help prepare people for the construction field. Project CREW (Construction Readiness Education for Women), a nine-month program, is one example, Letterman said.

The program is designed as a basic introduction course, but does not get into training for a specific trade in the construction field, Letterman said.

In conjunction with masons, bricklayers and supporting industries, OTC has offered a masons training program for the last three years, according to Chris Nattinger, owner of Nattinger Materials Company.

Masonry contractors have supported the program and worked as instructors in the classroom. The program has had success in attracting people to the trade, but there is still a shortage in the field in Springfield and nationwide, Nattinger stated.

Although masonry is a time-honored profession and a good opportunity for a lifetime career, the field is attracting fewer young people than it has in the past, Nattinger said.

"Families haven't passed the skill down the way the used to," he added.

Since construction is strong all over the country right now, it is hard to get and keep skilled people. Contractors are paying a premium for highly skilled workers, and benefit packages have increased substantially over the last two years, according to Gary Nelson, president of MSI, Masonry Structures Inc.

Nelson added that unskilled labor is relatively easy to find, although today contractors are paying more for these workers, as well.

"The industry has a stigma of being low pay for unskilled labor, but it isn't true today," he said.

People need to be educated that these fields are viable careers, and awareness should start at the high school level, local construction professionals agreed.

The Springfield Contractors Association sends representatives to high schools to enlighten young people about the opportunities in the construction industry, but the industry needs more training programs for graduates, Nelson said.

"I think people will go back to the trades when the technical fields are saturated," he added.

The industry has to address the need for more training and be ready to make a place for qualified candidates. Often people entering the work force do not think of construction in terms of a long-term career, Letterman said.

"People look at the downside and think it's hot in the summer, cold in the winter, wet when it rains, and workers can't always count on a 40-hour paycheck," Letterman said.

But those willing to brave the elements find construction an interesting, challenging, rewarding way to make a living without being stuck in an office from 9 to 5 every day, she added.

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