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Help wanted: Companies face shortage of skilled labor in construction trades

Jeff Himler
| Sunday, Sept. 3, 2017, 11:00 p.m.
A home built by Inselmini Construction off of Brinkerton Road in Hempfield Township.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
A home built by Inselmini Construction off of Brinkerton Road in Hempfield Township.
Jim Thomas (left), 58, owner of Jim Thomas Construction Company in Pleasant Unity, waits for Kevin Palmer to finish cutting a rafter beam, as they work on an addition to a home off Dogwood Lane, in Unity Township, on Friday, Sept. 01, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Jim Thomas (left), 58, owner of Jim Thomas Construction Company in Pleasant Unity, waits for Kevin Palmer to finish cutting a rafter beam, as they work on an addition to a home off Dogwood Lane, in Unity Township, on Friday, Sept. 01, 2017.
Jim Thomas (left), 58, owner of Jim Thomas Construction Company in Pleasant Unity, and Kevin Palmer lift up a rafter to be set into place, as they work on an addition to a home off Dogwood Lane, in Unity Township, on Friday, Sept. 01, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Jim Thomas (left), 58, owner of Jim Thomas Construction Company in Pleasant Unity, and Kevin Palmer lift up a rafter to be set into place, as they work on an addition to a home off Dogwood Lane, in Unity Township, on Friday, Sept. 01, 2017.
Kevin Palmer, of Jim Thomas Construction Company in Pleasant Unity, works on cutting a rafter beam, as they build an addition to a home off Dogwood Lane, in Unity Township, on Friday, Sept. 01, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Kevin Palmer, of Jim Thomas Construction Company in Pleasant Unity, works on cutting a rafter beam, as they build an addition to a home off Dogwood Lane, in Unity Township, on Friday, Sept. 01, 2017.
Kevin Palmer, of Jim Thomas Construction Company in Pleasant Unity, works on cutting a rafter beam, as they build an addition to a home off Dogwood Lane, in Unity Township, on Friday, Sept. 01, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Kevin Palmer, of Jim Thomas Construction Company in Pleasant Unity, works on cutting a rafter beam, as they build an addition to a home off Dogwood Lane, in Unity Township, on Friday, Sept. 01, 2017.
Members of Jim Thomas Construction Company in Pleasant Unity, lift a rafter to be set in place, as work continues on an addition to a home off Dogwood Lane, in Unity Township, on Friday, Sept. 01, 2017.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Members of Jim Thomas Construction Company in Pleasant Unity, lift a rafter to be set in place, as work continues on an addition to a home off Dogwood Lane, in Unity Township, on Friday, Sept. 01, 2017.

Derry Township contractor John Inselmini has a crew working on a home construction project in Hempfield. But getting the manpower in place to tackle such jobs has become more challenging as Inselmini and other employers cope with a construction labor force that has been dwindling and aging.

“In our area, there is definitely a shortage of skilled labor,” said Inselmini, whose firm works on residential and light commercial construction and remodeling. “Every year it gets worse.”

Though poor weather affects construction, Inselmini said, “We're busy enough. Seldom do I lay anybody off.”

To supplement his core of about six employees with other needed workers, he said, he advertises online and in publications but is frustrated by the tepid response. “We're lucky to find two or three people that even answer for an interview,” he said.

Inselmini has seen construction costs rise by about 20 percent as he's boosted wages in an effort to attract and keep skilled workers.

“It affects the electricians, plumbers and HVAC guys,” Inselmini said of labor market challenges. “We're all swimming upstream.”

Dave Demilio, a Greensburg-based HVAC provider, concurs. “To find a good employee, you have to steal them off somebody else” by offering better pay, he said. “It's driving the costs up, and that's being passed down to the consumers.”

Inselmini and Demilio agree that there is a dearth of interest among today's high school students in entering construction-related fields — which bodes ill for easing the labor shortage, especially as experienced tradesmen approach retirement.

Recalling a high school recruitment event, Demilio estimated just 3 percent of students inquired about construction-related jobs, with most showing interest in other career options such as auto repair.

Despite the potential for top wages in skilled construction jobs, Inselmini said, “Nobody is really promoting the trades like they used to. In any of those trades, you've got to work hard with your hands and in all kinds of weather.

“I think most of all it's the mentality that has to change in the younger people. They have to be willing to work hard.”

“Everyone wants to sit in front of a computer,” Demilio said of young people preparing to enter the workforce. “A lot don't have mechanical skills.”

Training available

At the Eastern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center, enrollment in four construction-related programs in 2016-17 accounted for about 19 percent of the school's roughly 520 students from member districts Greater Latrobe, Derry Area and Ligonier Valley, Director Todd Weimer said.

That enrollment figure has remained consistent in recent years, but “isn't the size it could be,” Weimer said.

He said there is a disconnect between the unfavorable perceptions many students and parents have about the construction trades and the opportunities those lines of work provide for a sustainable living.

“We don't look at them the same way we look at lawyers, doctors and engineers,” Weimer said of the trades. “For that reason, I think kids don't look at those as great job opportunities.”

Latrobe contractor Jim Thomas labors on construction projects alongside five full-time employees and a young part-time worker he added through a co-op program with the Eastern Westmoreland school. He also calls upon subcontractors, including Amish craftsmen from eastern Pennsylvania or Ohio, to complete residential and light commercial projects.

“You can't get enough full-time people, so you end up with more subcontractors to do what's necessary,” he said.

Jack Ramage, executive director of the Master Builders' Association of Western Pennsylvania, said a worker shortage hasn't yet become a widespread problem for large-scale construction projects in the region that draw upon union labor. And, he said, employers and unions are making efforts to prevent that from happening by seeking to recruit young workers to help replace the 41,000 older ones — about 40 percent of the area's construction workforce — who are expected to retire in about seven years.

Inselmini noted 30 used to be the average age of his workers, but now it's 45 in an industry in which workers tend to retire earlier.

“The construction trades do take a toll on your body if you're involved in more physical aspects like brick-laying, iron-working or concrete-finishing,” Ramage said. “You can't do that kind of work well into your 60s.”

“Some of our trades are having a hard time finding enough workers to meet current demand,” Ramage acknowledged. “The pool of workers is shrinking, and everybody is competing for that same pool.”

He suggested that workers may have shifted from constructing buildings to employment in the oil and gas industry.

The number of apprentices accepted into union training programs for the 10-county region has increased over the past two years, said Jeff Nobers, executive director of the Builders Guild of Western Pennsylvania. The nonprofit guild is a joint effort of 16 building trade unions and six contractor associations.

The Operating Engineers Local 66 training program in Salem Township has accepted 113 apprentices and six mechanics this year, roughly double the numbers it would train in an average year, Nobers said.

“Now that work is picking up, most of the individual locals are increasing the size of their (apprentice) classes by at least half,” said Richard Stanizzo, business manager of the seven-county Pittsburgh Regional Building Trades Council.

“It's a balancing act,” Nobers said. He noted unions “don't want to bring apprentices in unless they know they have jobs to send them to. That has not been an issue for the past couple of years, and we don't see that as being an issue.”

Nobers said $2 billion in construction work is projected in the region next year — not counting initial work on the ethane cracker plant in Beaver County. When work ramps up at that site two years from now, the number of tradespeople employed there is expected to increase from about 900 to 5,000.

“We feel confident we'll be able to staff all that,” Nobers said.

Construction industry officials are trying to get the attention of potential apprentices by reaching out to them with mobile apps, Nobers explained. “Like any industry, we've had to change the way we communicate to people, especially with younger people. We're going where they live, on their smartphones,” he said.

Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6622, jhimler@tribweb.com or via Twitter @jhimler_news.

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