Skilled worker shortage looms for U.S. construction firms

WASHINGTON, Jan 21 (Reuters) - U.S. construction companies are gearing up to hire more workers this year, if only they can find them.

A shortage of skilled workers is looming in the sector, which lost 2.3 million jobs during the 2007-2009 recession and has only recouped less than half a million jobs, catching employers off guard and sowing fear among many.

According to an Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) survey released on Tuesday, 86 percent of companies plan to start hiring this year, up from 78 percent in 2013.

At the same time, 62 percent of firms are already complaining they cannot fill key professional and craft worker positions. The AGC represents 30,000 construction firms throughout the nation.

“In particular, many firms report having a hard time finding qualified workers to fill project manager or supervisor positions, equipment operators, carpenters and laborers,” AGC Chief Executive Officer Stephen Sander told reporters.

The survey found that two-thirds of companies expect it will either become harder or remain difficult to find qualified construction professionals over the next 12 months.

In addition, 74 percent of the firms predict it will get harder, or remain as hard, to find qualified construction craft professionals this year.

“One potential reason for growing construction worker shortages is that many contractors have a poor opinion of the local pipeline for preparing new workers,” said Sander.

During the Great Recession, construction workers who lost their employment found jobs in sectors such as shale gas exploration, as well as healthcare. Others were lost to retirement.

Sander said competition for the available construction workers was heating up. The survey found that 52 percent of firms reported losing workers to other construction companies.

As a result, companies are raising wages and improving benefits to retain workers, the survey found.

“The pressures we are having is just keeping the workers in the industry,” said Rob Moore, president and CEO of Big-D Corporation in Salt Lake City.

“When the market starts to come up and we start seeing more projects become available, the fear for us is where are the workers going to come from. The skilled workers that have moved into these different market segments, can we get them back into construction?”

The shortage of skilled workers is also an issue for manufacturing, which was also hard hit by the recession.

Much of the problem is blamed on retiring baby boomers and the fact that construction and manufacturing remain unattractive career paths for most students graduating from high school.

Strong growth is expected in construction this year, driven largely by the private sector.

Public sector spending on construction is expected to stabilize as belt-tightening in Washington and at both state and local government level eases.

Just under three-quarters of firms plan to buy some kind of construction equipment this year, while 86 percent of firms plan to lease new equipment. At the beginning of 2013, only 64 percent of firms planned to purchase new construction equipment, while 77 percent planned to lease new equipment.