Writer: Deborah Johnson Wood
The housing construction downturn did more than bottom-out the economy — it also stripped the residential construction industry of the next generation of skilled, experienced carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and other trades.
As a result, John Bitely, owner of Rockford-based Sable Homes, says he can’t find the workers he needs to begin work on any new home building orders, even though he has buyers waiting. In particular, the 20-home Central Town Square project in Sparta, which Bitely says sold half the homes in less than a year, is well underway — but Bitely can’t start any new homes “because of my labor situation, I can’t start another house for another month or two because I don’t have anybody to put on it to do the work.”
“Right now, many of us (builders) are overwhelmed, the pent up demand for houses is upon us, consumers are buying homes that they want versus a lot of vanilla homes, which were just stripped models during the downturn, and now people want the amenities and nicer things and that takes longer and requires more tradesmen,” Bitely says.
The reasons for the shortage of skilled construction workers vary. Bitely says it used to be that a 16-year-old could work as a construction helper and by the time they graduated high school they’d be well on their way to learning a trade that pays as well as a college-degreed job.
Another reason is that construction workers age-out — by the time they’re 40, years of heavy lifting have taken their toll. Without these experienced workers, there are no lead workers to teach younger workers the skills of the trades.
Bitely co-chairs the Next Generation Committee at the Home Builders Association of Greater Grand Rapids, which, with other associations, has formed theConstruction Workforce Development Alliance. The focus of the alliance is to encourage young people to take up the building trades as a career choice, help them decide which trade to pursue, and to connect them with companies that can help them get started with on-the-job training.
“The next generation, we’re almost saddling them with the equivalent of a home mortgage (college costs) before they’re out of college, and you don’t have to go that route,” Bitely says. “You can become a plumber’s helper and if you like it, can write the test and get your journeyman’s card. The same’s true for becoming a carpenter. There are options that don’t require four years of college that still provide a good living.”