After slump, construction firms begin to hire
A few years ago, CJ Akins was laid off from her job as a telemarketer.
When Akins considered her next move, she decided she didn't want another desk job. Then she saw an ad in a newspaper for construction-related training, she was intrigued. Akins comes from a family of carpenters and was always helping her dad with little fix-it projects around the house. So the ad struck a chord with her.
"[It] said 'Women wear hard hats, too,' " recalled Akins, of Minneapolis. "And I was thinking, 'Wow, I could do that.' Within a week or so I was going to classes."
At a time when thousands of workers were leaving construction for lack of work, Akins went running towards it.
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She's among a growing number of people who are benefitting from the decision by construction firms to hire again, a sharp contrast to a few years ago when the housing sector tanked and new building projects came to a halt. Tens of thousands of people working in trades like plumbing and carpentry were laid off or decided to leave the construction industry.
Employment in the skilled trades has recently been rising.
After just four months of training in carpentry and weatherization at Summit Academy, Akins, 42, landed a job with Thor Construction for $17 an hour, about a third more than she made at her last job.
She first worked in carpentry and weatherization. Managers eventually put her to work at the noisy light rail construction site in St. Paul.
Akins' current job as a field engineer involves photographing her company's cement work for quality control.
"It was pretty nice, considering coming out of $12, $13 in the office.
After several raises, she now earns $23 an hour.
The various jobs Akins has held in construction are all part of the specialty trades. Employment in the trades is still far short of its peak in 2005, and unemployment among construction workers is still high. But, job growth has been running at a phenomenal pace this year.
As of September, employment for these contractors hit its highest growth rate on record — up 12 percent from the year before.
Just a few years ago, the industry was shedding jobs at a rate of 18 percent a year.
Some employers think the massive layoffs left workers scared of construction. Many people are still wary of construction as a career, said Todd Polifka, president of Brush Masters, a paint and drywall company based in Maple Grove, Minn.
"We're not seeing a lot of employees in their 20s coming into the construction market... I think some people don't understand the opportunity."
"I think that's part of it," he said. "Everyone has a relative or family member or friend who's had a negative impact, wage rollback. Or they're sitting on the bench because of lack of work."
But Polifka said residential housing has started to bounce back, and so have businesses like his. He wants to hire more painters and drywallers to handle the increasing workload and also needs sales representatives and general managers.
But those posts have been hard to fill lately. Polifka said that's the case at his shop and at businesses he's familiar with that do jobs like framing, masonry, and carpentry.
"We're not seeing a lot of employees in their 20s coming into the construction market," he said. "I think some people don't understand the opportunity."
Economists don't expect steep growth in construction to continue long term due to the aging population and lingering effects of the Great Recession that will limit demand for housing.
But Polifka notes there will still be a need for skilled tradespeople to repair or replace some of the older housing stock.
"It's a cautiously optimistic view you have to take, but still, it takes people to make good things happen," he said.
Polifka and a few other business owners plan a job fair in a few months to try to entice more people into construction. They're organizing it with the Builders Association of the Twin Cities.
At her job on the light rail line, CJ Akins said she thinks she has job security in construction — enough so that she and her husband are buying a house. After working on other people's homes, she grows emotional about owning her own.
"It's my first home," she said. "I waited a little late in life to get one. But it's kind of exciting. So far, so good, I've been really blessed."
Akins and her husband hope to close on their house this week.
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