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Why local builders can't find enough workers

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The housing market is still red hot, but many construction contractors say they’re actually turning down work. Why? Because they say they can’t find enough workers. WMRA’s Jessie Knadler explores why it’s so difficult to find skilled builders in our area.

If you’ve tried to hire someone to come work on your place lately, you know it can take a long time for them to show up. A really long time.

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Helen Bisset owns the design firm Curated Interiors in Lexington, Va.

Helen Bisset owns the full-service design firm Curated Interiors in Lexington. She said it’s not uncommon to have to wait five months for a plumber to show up on one of her jobsites.

HELEN BISSET: And now we’re in the middle of a renovation where the plumbing hasn’t been finished and now we’re in the winter. And so we’re, you know, up against potentially freezing pipes and things like that.

On another renovation of a short-term rental property, the client, who’s from Florida, had to bring in his own construction crew from Florida.

BISSET: The dates he was getting from local contractors was that it would be 2023 before they could even start.

A year. Before they could start.

BISSET: The feedback that I’ve been getting from the contractors we work with is that they just don’t have enough people that are available or willing to work or stick with it. So maybe they have three good people they can rely on but they really need ten.

The skilled labor shortage is a national problem. The Home Builders Institute estimates 2.2 million more workers need to be hired between now and 2024. Even though annual wages in these industries are solid. $50,000 on the lower end and upwards of $70K on the higher end. So what gives? Where are all the up-and-coming builders?

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Joy Asico/Asico Photo/Joy Asico
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Greg Sizemore leads workforce development for Associated Builders and Contractors.

Greg Sizemore heads up workforce development for Associated Builders and Contractors. A big part of the problem, he says, is cultural bias.

GREG SIZEMORE: For decades, we’ve done a very good job of pushing everyone towards college and saying that the bar of success in life is whether or not you actually have a college degree. And we’ve done little or nothing to really promote the career technical side of the world. And I say that because, you know, you can’t go to school without somebody building the school first. You can’t play in a football stadium unless somebody builds a stadium first.

In response to the labor shortage, Sizemore’s association has doubled down on workforce development—more chapters for networking and training, 800 registered apprenticeship programs—but it may not be sufficient. The recently passed Infrastructure Bill, which includes billions of dollars for construction projects nationwide, may only expose further the need for workers.

SIZEMORE: For every billion dollars worth of spending on infrastructure, that employs over 5,000 craft workers. So we’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

Technical schools in the region are having a hard time meeting the demand from employers.

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Stephanie Carter is director of Charlottesville-Albemarle Technical Education Center, or CATEC

STEPHANIE CARTER: We have absolutely seen a ton of increased demand from our local business partners that are looking to train folks or to recruit students that we’re training.

Stephanie Carter is director of Charlottesville-Albemarle Technical Education Center, or CATEC. For her, the prospect of getting paid to learn, graduating with zero debt, commanding a nice salary with benefits is a draw not enough young people are taking advantage of.

CARTER: We're just almost gross about it, but with every turn it's like, how can we get the message out, how can we get the message out? So we just are constantly, constantly beating the drum. If you're ever with somebody that's been in skilled trades, if you drive by a house that they built or that they had anything to do with, they'll tell you, I put the floor down in there. I wired that house. And there's a huge amount of self-esteem and the success of seeing something that you built be there and it's, it's a tangible, substantial thing.

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Paige Owens runs the Career and Technical Education Center at Rockbridge County High School. He says their Building Trades program is packed every year. And he’s seen an increase in the number and variety of students seeking technical education. But that doesn’t necessarily translate to a career in the trades after graduation. Because here’s another reason for the labor shortage. Construction jobs can be tough.

PAIGE OWENS: Depending on what you’re doing sometimes it's hard on your body. And when they're in their twenties, it's not a huge deal. When they're in their forties and fifties, it can sometimes become a big deal.

Owens says he doesn’t know what the answer is except to try to help kids find a career that’s right for them.

OWENS: We're trying to figure out the answers as well, to try to help our local businesses and builders and what have you, but we're also trying to do what we can to help our kids and, and help get them into the right fit for a career that they want to do and, that’s about it.

In the meantime, Americans will have to keep waiting on the plumber.