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As workforce shrinks, construction industry feels crunch

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Eli Broecker, a student at Stillwater Area High School, grades the floor.
Eli Broecker, 17, a high school student, grades the floor in the basement of a new home construction site in North St. Paul on Monday as part of the Construction and Occupations Program through the 916 Career and Technical Center.
Tom Baker for MPR News

People running construction companies throughout Minnesota complain a lot these days about not being able to find enough workers. And they're worried about a major crunch in the coming years.    

The housing bust and Great Recession a decade ago devastated the trades as jobs dried up and workers left the field. In Minnesota, employment in the sector has rebounded significantly, but it's still short of its 2005 annual average peak of some 129,000 jobs. Complicating matters: Many who remain in the field are nearing retirement.    

Industry leaders are so concerned about finding workers that some key players have launched a campaign to draw more people into the field: Project Build Minnesota.    

"We are trying to prime the pump," said David Siegel, executive director of the Builders Association of the Twin Cities — and one of the founders of Project Build Minnesota. "Our goal is to draw interest to the profession, the trade, the field broadly and say, 'Construction is something you ought to think about.'"  

Siegel and other industry leaders hope to make that pitch through a website that covers everything from career opportunities to training programs. They're also making efforts to speak directly to students, parents and school counselors about the construction and building trades, in which workers earn about $61,500 a year on average, Siegel said. 

Carl Tomlinson, 17, brings shovels down into the basement.
Carl Tomlinson, 17, brings shovels down into the basement at a new home construction site.
Tom Baker for MPR News

  There has been a tendency for some people to look down on blue-collar professions, Siegel said, but he believes that's changing.   

"Somebody's got to build our roads," he said. "Somebody's got to build our houses. It think we're coming back to understanding how important and valuable those skills and trades and opportunities are. And it's just going to take some time for that to sink in."  

That thought is already sinking in with students enrolled in Northeast Metro Intermediate School District 916's construction program. The intermediate district is one of three in Minnesota that provides career and technical education, among other services, to 14 school districts.   

Northeast Metro's construction program offers students classes and experiences they would not find in their home school districts. Every year, students build a house from the ground up, guided by skilled tradespeople.

  Luke Jeska of North St. Paul is one of the students in the program, which has made him think more about a career in construction or a related field.  

"I like being outdoors," he said. "And you get to do a lot with your hands, and it's different stuff every day."  

Luke Jeska, 18, a high school student, rigs up a safety light.
Luke Jeska, 18, a student at North St. Paul High School, rigs up a safety light.
Tom Baker for MPR News

The program has helped Stillwater High School senior Dylan Haley confirm his career plans.  

"I have a lot of relatives in the trades, and I hope to be an electrician," he said. "It's fun, interesting, something new every day."  

Tom Spehn oversees the district's construction training program. He says the decline of shop classes in middle schools means students are less aware of the trades. And they come to his program without the skills they used to bring: "From arithmetic, adding, subtracting, fractions to proper use of hand tools, something as simple as using a hammer," he said. 

  "We have to teach them here, whereas 18 years ago, with their shop class experience, we didn't have to go through those steps."  

Tom Spehn, instructor at 916 Career and Tech. Center, poses for a portrait.
Tom Spehn poses for a portrait.
Tom Baker for MPR News

Spehn said students learn all aspects of the home building industry in his program: foundation, framing, interior and exterior finishing, roofing and the internal mechanics, such as heating, electrical and plumbing.

  But the trickle of students coming out of programs like Spehn's is not enough to satisfy the industry. 

  Kurt Scepaniak, who owns Brooklyn Center-based Horizon Roofing, hopes to add two dozen or more workers next year —  but that might be a stretch. Many, if not most, young people don't see construction and related trades as smart career options, he said.  

"In the last few years, it has continued to get tougher as more and more marketing has been done for everybody go to college," he said.  

Scepaniak, whose company serves commercial customers throughout the Midwest, says he's had to look for workers outside of Minnesota or bring on people with no construction experience and train them on the job — all at a time when wages are well above minimum and rising. 

  "Our wages right now are running anywhere between $16 an hour to about $41 an hour," he said.

  Labor market experts say a greater focus on diversity is crucial to the construction industry addressing its labor issues. 

  "Construction is an industry that has not done a very good job of diversifying their labor force," said Oriane Casale, a labor market analyst with the Minnesota Department of Employment of Economic Development. "And if they want to continue hiring people, they're simply going to have to hire a more diverse labor force because that's the population out there to be hired."

A home construction site in No. St. Paul gives students hands-on practice.
Students in the Construction and Occupations Program get hands-on training about construction and building trades.
Tom Baker for MPR News

  Indeed, minorities are the fastest-growing demographic of Minnesota's workforce. And they're underrepresented in the building trades, which "can't find can't find workers in the places they're used to looking," said Louis King, president and CEO of Summit Academy OIC in Minneapolis.  

King's school offers 20-week, tuition-free programs that prepare students to move into entry-level jobs or apprenticeships in the trades. Since the beginning of last year, King says 320 graduates have done that. Most of the school's students are women or people of color.

  King said the construction industry needs to give more consideration to people like the program's graduates — "populations that they have not necessarily welcomed, or seen as a source of labor," he said.

  Minnesota's human rights department says construction industry efforts to reduce disparities have produced tremendous gains over the past five years. But barriers remain. This summer, the department boosted the state's goals for minority and women-owned participation in state construction projects to reflect the growing diversity of Minnesota's workforce.   

King hopes to ramp up enrollment in Summit Academy OIC's construction program. Meanwhile, other training programs are in the works.  

North Hennepin Community College, for one, has been working with the Minneapolis Building and Construction Trades Council to develop a two-year construction technology degree that incorporates an apprenticeship as part of its program.   

In the fall of 2015, South Central College, which has campuses in North Mankato and Faribault, revived a two-year carpentry program that had been shelved during the recession.    

"There was a major demand for the program," said college president Annette Parker. "Lots of construction companies really wanted us to bring the program back."  

Ironically, though, the total number of graduates in construction and architectural programs at the colleges and universities of the Minnesota State college and university system dropped from 1,326 in 2011 to 970 in 2015.  

Minnesota State spokesman Doug Anderson said many people are finding that they can land jobs in the field and get on-the-job training, meaning they don't need a degree, training or experience upfront, at least not these days.