The old saying goes, “you have to take the bad with the good.” Sounds fair, but let’s start with the good first: The utility construction industry is experiencing growth. The bad news? The industry is also experiencing a shortage in qualified workers.
“Worker shortage is one of the top issues facing our industry,” says Ryan Schmitt, president of Petticoat-Schmitt Civil Contractors Inc. “Many trades people have either left the industry or left the area. An increase in work, coupled with decreased labor availability, has posed some substantial labor issues.”
On top of a shortage of interested people, the current workforce is continuing to age and look to the future. With the average age of a U.S. construction worker at 42, companies are hoping to draw in fresh talent as current employees look to retirement.
“It is a major problem for our industry,” says Mark Fuglevand, vice president of Marshbank Construction. “When I look at our crews, the majority are in their upper 40s. There is not a pool of younger workers in the system to replace them. Also, our employees are all union members and have good retirements. Thus, many are retiring at an earlier age, which will accelerate the problem to find replacements.”
Encouraging Potential Employees
With the industry remaining vibrant and new jobs continuing down the pipeline, there are significant opportunities out there for jobs as well as growth at companies.
“There are plentiful opportunities in the heavy construction industry,” advises Schmitt.
“Whether you are entering at the trades level or are a graduating college student looking to start a career in heavy/utility construction, there are plenty of opportunities. I know that our local university has 100 percent job placement for all graduating students who have majored in Construction Management.”
No matter the industry, workers have to start somewhere, and according to Fuglevand, the utility construction market offers room to grow.
“In our market [Seattle], the pay is excellent,” he says. “Our flaggers who are at the bottom of the scale make over $26 per hour. If they work a full year, they make over $50K per year. Operators, who are at the high end for our company, make over $38 per hour. This puts them at nearly $80K per year. With overtime, we have quite a few who were at $100K last year. In the management side, a starting project engineer is at least $70K per year with great benefits and unlimited opportunity.”
Investing in New Workers
The hunt for new employees is a major focus for utility construction companies, and many are making the investment to find and retain workers. Schmitt points out that it’s important to make hiring and retention a priority.
“We have doubled down with many efforts for finding new employees,” says Schmitt.
“With the help of an accomplished in-house HR manager, we have focused our hiring efforts across numerous advertising media. We utilize online advertising, numerous job internet boards, website applications, jobsite and vehicle signage among other things.”
Fuglevand mentions that Marshbank relies on the union for employees. However, if the company hears about someone who is eager to join the workforce, it works with them to get them enrolled and dispatched to crews.
Once hired, Petticoat-Schmitt works with new employees to gather the proper training to ensure they are equipped with the skills and know-how for a career with the company.
“We conduct weekly full-day safety training for all new hires, but we also fill any empty seats with existing employees to give safety refreshers,” says Schmitt. “Other training includes Competent Person, Confined Space, CPR/First Aid, M.O.T., NPDES Erosion Control, OSHA 10 hour and in-house management training, not to mention regular lunch and learns and software training.”
A Helping Hand
Aside from personal efforts from companies, trade associations like NUCA are always looking for ways to combat the shortage issue. Between networking events, partnerships and training programs, NUCA is keeping an eye on this pressing situation.
“Association involvement offers great networking opportunities where you can hear about the best-in-class recruiting and retention efforts,” explains Schmitt. “It also provides the framework for a sound training program. Also, success in NUCA’s awards program allows you to showcase to potential or new employees that your company is an organization worth working for.”
Fuglevand adds, “NUCA is assisting with schools like Warren Tech in Colorado to establish vocational-technical programs for high school students. Local chapters are also taking the lead to get out to career days at high schools to promote our industry. The Washington State chapter is sponsoring Dozer Days, which is for younger children to get them excited about construction by allowing them to operate equipment in a carnival type atmosphere. All members agree that we must take the lead on advocating for our industry and bring young workers into our industry.”
Pam Kleineke is Managing Editor of Utility Contractor.