Bucking national trend, Pittsburgh not short on construction workers
Before the sun rises every morning, Rich Vogel piles into a van with a dozen other tradesmen and drives to a construction site in West Virginia.
Getting up at 3:45 a.m. to start a 12-hour workday isn't Vogel's ideal. But, given the choice of doing so or not working, he'll take it.
“Do what you gotta do to work,” said Vogel, 48, of South Park Township.
The construction industry says it is in danger of a nationwide worker shortage. But in Pittsburgh, contractors and developers say the opposite is true. As the spring building season ramps up, many like Vogel are traveling far beyond the metro area to stay busy.
At least in the short term, there appears to be barely enough work for carpenters, laborers, sheetrock finishers and other tradesmen.
“I'm not seeing a shortage (of workers),” said Jack Ramage, executive director of the Master Builder's Association of Western Pennsylvania. “Our members are worried more about where the next job is going to be than how they're going to man it.”
New home construction in Pittsburgh has regained some momentum since hitting a low in 2011. Last year, 4,425 permits were issued in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, the most since 2007, according to census data.
Still, not all of those permitted projects got built, and the number of construction jobs, both in Pittsburgh and throughout the state, has steadily declined during the past few years. Pittsburgh employers shed 900 jobs in the construction trades in the past year. Statewide, the sector has had a modest increase of 1.5 percent since March 2013, but has not caught up with where it was before the recession, according to state Labor Department statistics. Pennsylvania's construction industry remains 30,400 jobs short of what it had in December 2007, an 11.7 percent decline.
Some of the people who lost jobs have been able to get hired in other growing industries, such as natural gas, said Rich Barcaskey, executive director of the Constructors Association of Western Pennsylvania. Heavy equipment operators, for example, can get hired in multiple industries such as transportation, commercial or residential construction and even the energy sector because they have transferable skills.
But a carpenter doesn't have that option. He can either sit at home and wait for building activity to pick up or travel farther afield in search of employment.
“Right now, your local contractors are looking in other areas,” Barcaskey said.
Vogel is a superintendent for Wyatt Inc., a contractor in Collier Township. The van he drives is one of seven that Wyatt uses to transport about 90 construction workers every day to Morgantown.
The college town of 31,000 residents is experiencing the labor shortage that economists have been warning about.
There has been something of a building boom at West Virginia University, lately, and Wyatt can't find enough local tradesmen to finish a student housing project on a tight August deadline, said Fred Episcopo, Wyatt's president.
So, Wyatt has pulled from its Pittsburgh workforce to fill out its ranks.
“West Virginia is a crunch for us,” Episcopo said. “Pittsburgh is not.”
Not that Pittsburgh will never have a shortage of construction workers. Some believe it could be coming soon.
“I am firmly in the camp that we are headed toward a skilled labor shortage in the region,” said Jeff Burd, founder of the Tall Timber Group, which tracks the construction market in Western Pennsylvania.
Burd said the demographics are no more favorable here than elsewhere in the nation, in which nearly half of the construction workforce is age 45 or older, and many are nearing retirement, according to Census Bureau statistics. Also, Pittsburgh doesn't have a large pool of immigrants that, in other cities, helps fill immediate needs for laborers.
The Associated General Contractors of America has tried to bring new faces into the trades by establishing charter schools focused on technical training, starting non-union apprenticeship programs and pushing for immigration reform.
There has been a steady stream of tradesmen leaving construction jobs for the natural gas industry, Burd said. And if Royal Dutch Shell's proposed “cracker” plant in Beaver County gets going, then there could be an exodus of workers that would leave contractors short-handed.
“Everybody seems to have the same story of losing people to the gas industry,” Burd said. “And if it's like that now, when work is relatively slow ... I think it becomes more and more of a problem.”
Ed Gillenberg has heard it before. The 56-year-old Finleyville resident said he has heard talk of a wave of construction work coming to Pittsburgh, but if there was one, it was a wave he never caught.
Gillenberg was among the men who boarded Vogel's van early Thursday to go to Morgantown. They groaned about the early morning hour and long day that awaited them, and yet they were prepared to come back tomorrow and every day after that until the job was finished this summer.
The reason was simple, Gillenberg said.
“Do what you have to do to make a living,” he said.
Chris Fleisher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7854 or firstname.lastname@example.org.