You might pardon construction officials if they see a dark cloud hanging over the anticipated  flurry of big construction jobs about to come online, including a Facebook Inc. data center in Altoona and its promise of 2,000 construction jobs.

The industry has lost 3,600 jobs during the Great Recession as of April, according to recent figures from Iowa Workforce Development, and there is a fear that while construction jobs are coming back, many of the workers won’t return. Of special concern is a lack of skilled workers such as electricians, welders and masons.

That shortage “hasn’t hit us yet,” said Shannon Baird, vice president for J.E. Dunn Construction Group Inc.’s Iowa operations, “but we see it coming.”

Industry officials have seen it coming for a long time. Some have changed their recruiting pitches and some remain puzzled about how to bring fresh faces onto job sites.

In 2008, the Associated General Contractors of America predicted the country would lose 180,000 construction workers by 2018.

A more recent study by Economic Modeling Specialist International pegged the shortage squarely on the fact that the construction workforce is aging.

According to its report, nearly 51 percent of skilled trades workers in Iowa are age 45 or older, and 20.5 percent are at least 55. The national averages are nearly 53 percent and 21 percent, respectively.

In Greater Des Moines, those numbers haven’t resulted in work delays, industry officials said, but that’s because the recovery still hasn’t swept through the construction industry, so there is not as much demand for workers.


No recovery, no crisis

“Construction is one of the last sectors to feel the recession and one of the last to feel the economy coming back,” Baird said. “The important thing is for people to know the work is coming and to know their trade is going to be needed.”

John Irving, director of business development at Baker Electric Inc., said the company has 43 electricians sitting at home waiting for a call that their expertise is needed.

The company, which employed 400 skilled tradesmen four years ago, is down to 267, including those waiting for a return-to-work call. 

If Baker landed three or four of the big construction jobs that are expected to launch yet this spring, it would have enough people to cover the work load. However, Irving isn’t thinking about landing every job.

“That would be like winning the lottery,” he said.

Those construction starts, which include another data center in Altoona, aren’t tempting enough to encourage large-scale hiring because industry officials have yet to be convinced that long-term work can be sustained.

“Now it’s like if we have work this week, we’re in good shape,” Irving said. But if the industry did make a full-tilt comeback, it would face the problem of not having enough trained workers.

“Every year we see the numbers decline, even though the jobless rate is high.… A lot of people have gone into a different occupation altogether. Some may come back, some may not,” Irving said.


Attracting younger workers

Ron Pinegar, state training director for the Iowa Electrical Apprenticeship program, which is sponsored by several locals of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union and the construction industry, said the major problem faced by all construction sectors is a lack of interest from young people.

That point was driven home to Pinegar when he when he was trying to recruit trainees at a trade show. In a little more than two hours, three people talked to him at his display stand; the tattoo artist next to him had 75 visitors.

“We’re dying for good applicants,” he said.

The number of applicants for the five-year program have been steadily declining since 2006.

“I’m going to say applicants have dropped off about 50 percent,” Pinegar said.

Before the recession, he would interview 40 to 60 candidates every day over a three-day recruiting period.

“Now, we have three half days or partial days,” he said.

Part of the problem is that many high schools have dropped the industrial arts programs that helped funnel students into union apprenticeship or other training programs.

These days, he is contacted by teachers who recommend students who are not necessarily high academic achievers, so the teacher figures the students would be best suited for a trade.

“Are you kidding me?” Pinegar said. “We’re talking advanced algebra and serious math. The poor student is not someone we want repairing the electrical grid. We also get a lot of students who start the program and come back and sit in the office because the trade is not what they thought it would be.”

Still, he can’t understand why young people would pass up a chance for a free education – some apprenticeship programs also coordinate their studies with Des Moines Area Community College to allow apprentices to earn enough credits for an associate of arts degree – and the opportunity to come out of the program making better than $33 an hour, as of June 1, with another $5 or $6 an hour contributed by employers to health and welfare plans.

Baker Electric’s Irving also puzzles over the fact that a free education isn’t enough to get prospects in the door.

“What we try to do is encourage people who go through the program  to understand that it might not be what they’ll be doing for the rest of their life,” he said.


It’s not all dirty work

The idea that construction requires all dirty work just doesn’t apply, said Brad Schoenfelder, vice president of development at Ryan Companies US Inc., the Minneapolis construction and design firm that has an office in Clive.

“A lot of our people are walking around job sites with iPads,” he said. “There are more challenges than just being able to work with your hands.”

Ryan has not encountered any slowdowns in its projects because of a lack of skilled workers, Schoenfelder said.

“What I’ve noticed is more of a regional shift,” he said, with workers following work.

For example, the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City areas attracted workers as the result of federal dollars going into flood recovery projects.

Schoenfelder and Irving said their companies create an environment where workers can be promoted.

“If they want growth opportunities, they can do that,” Schoenfelder said. “As we continue to grow, we’re looking for the most talented workforce.”

Irving said he tells young workers that they might launch their own businesses or eventually venture into other careers.

“Some people say I don’t want to be a carpenter or electrician all my life, but they don’t have to be,” he said.

Another avenue that has drawn volunteer support from the construction and design industries is the ACE Mentoring program, where high school students work with industry professionals on best methods for solving problems.

That program has seen a steady increase in students and a Greater Des Moines team recently won first place at a national competition.

“These kids understand as they are making decisions (about their futures) what happens in their industries,” Schoenfelder said.

“Construction is not just about getting your hands dirty; it’s a highly skilled industry with highly skilled professionals.”