Metro-East News

Metro-east employers struggle to fill construction jobs

Ron Koopman, a carpenter and superintendent with Holland Consruction Services works on the new St. Elizabeth's facility in O'Fallon on Friday afternoon.
Ron Koopman, a carpenter and superintendent with Holland Consruction Services works on the new St. Elizabeth's facility in O'Fallon on Friday afternoon. znizami@bnd.com

Wanted: Construction workers.

Will pay $30 or more an hour.

No college diploma or experience required.

Despite the alluring offer, the construction field is still challenged by a lack of applicants across the metro-east and beyond.

Bruce Holland, founder and chief executive officer of Holland Construction Services in Swansea, said the carpentry trades have been challenged since the recent recession, as more high school graduates chose college over carpentry and many left construction companies like his when the economy faltered.

We have always been in need of more young people coming in. In 2008 and 2009, a lot of people just decided they needed to go find something else to do. And when they did, a lot of them didn’t want to come back.

Bruce Holland, founder and chief executive officer, Holland Construction Services in Swansea

“We have always been in need of more young people coming in,” Holland said. “In 2008 and 2009, a lot of people just decided they needed to go find something else to do. And when they did, a lot of them didn’t want to come back.”

Like college, a career in construction isn’t for everyone, Holland said. Construction work is cyclical. He said a carpenter could make $35 an hour and a laborer $28 an hour, but the work is seasonal. He also said public perception of the industry has changed.

“It used to be that if a father was a carpenter, the son would want to be a carpenter,” he said. “We don’t see that quite as much now. The other thing is we see more parents who want their kids to go to college. They think that’s what you’ve got to do. Years ago, it wasn’t that way. You can have a good living working in the trades. Now, more are thinking they need to try college, but the problem is not all kids are suited for college.”

In order to find new workers in construction, the Southern Illinois Builders Association has stepped up its recruitment in local high schools by providing principals and counselors with information to help educate students and their parents. SIBA held a career expo earlier this month at the St. Clair County Fairgrounds in Belleville to reach out to local students and their families.

Association chief executive officer Donna Richter said although local construction workers average almost $33 per hour plus benefits of $22 per hour, for a total of $55 per hour, the industry’s employment shortage in the metro-east is anticipated to increase within the next five to seven years.

She said many times it is not the students, but their parents, who need to be sold on the carpentry trades.

A lot of times students who are interested in it sell their parents on it. We have invited students to come with their parents and handed out brochures to everyone that lists the various crafts and salaries, plus the fringe benefits and how to get into the apprenticeships for the various crafts.

Donna Richter, executive director, Southern Illinois Builders Association

“A lot of times students who are interested in it sell their parents on it,” Richter said. “We have invited students to come with their parents and handed out brochures to everyone that lists the various crafts and salaries, plus the fringe benefits and how to get into the apprenticeships for the various crafts.”

Richter said one selling point is that no college is required. And that means no students loans for many. All training is on the job and through apprenticeships, which are offered during certain times of the year. Some last as long as a year.

“Earn as you learn, with no college debt,” she said. “Some kids who graduate from college and universities have an astronomical amount of debt from student loans that they have to pay back.”

Tracy Butler, executive director of the Home Builders Association of Greater Southwest Illinois, said some schools have cut their trade programs in recent years, which only compounds the problem.

“That’s a huge topic for us,” Butler said. “A lot of our members are struggling to find employees. It’s not just builders; it’s the subcontractors and builders.”

Richter also said students who graduate from colleges and universities can’t find jobs following graduation, but they end up finding that they can make as much in construction trades.

As an apprentice instructor for the Painters District Council 58 in Collinsville, Tim Largent has seen college graduates enter the construction industry.

“I had a student who had gone to college who came out and did not find a full-time job, so he had to be a substitute and made $75 a day,” Largent said. “That wasn’t quite enough. His father owned a painting company, and he went to work for his father. So he has benefits, where he didn’t have them coming out of college.”

Largent said journeymen painters can earn $30 to $40 an hour with benefits out of high school with few requirements.

“You’re not going to come out of high school and work at Walmart or Schnucks or any place like that making $30 to $40 an hour,” he said. “I’ve never filled out an application for a job in my life. You just call them up and see if they need work. There are no resumes, not anything like that. You don’t interview for a job. They just hire you, and you go to work.”

Butler said the construction industry has become a more serious career than before as companies must also meet more strict code requirements and compliance.

Today’s construction jobs are not like they were 10, 15 or 20 years ago. It is so much more than showing up to a job site with your hammer and saw. You’ve got to know all of your OSHA compliances and know the code requirements for that job. So it is definitely a career now, rather than just a stepping stone.

Tracy Butler, executive director, Homebuilders Association of Greater Southwest Illinois

“Today’s construction jobs are not like they were 10, 15 or 20 years ago,” she said. “It is so much more than showing up to a job site with your hammer and saw. You’ve got to know all of your OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) compliances and know the code requirements for that job. So it is definitely a career now, rather than just a stepping stone.”

Richter said she hopes the local builders association can continue to educate more people about the construction industry and clear up any misconceptions.

“There are all of these misguiding factors about it,” she said. “It’s not an option presented to a lot of people. We’re trying to bring awareness of the options that exist in those fields.”

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