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Workforce shortage casts shadow on St. Louis construction sites

Construction continues on the 802,000-square-foot replacement hospital and outpatient care center for SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital. Aug 16, 2018
Brent Jones | St. Louis Public Radio
Many cranes on the skyline equal high employment in the construction industry, but there is a worker shortage on the horizon.

The construction industry is booming. Nationally, employment in the sector increased by 303,000 over the past year, reaching a 10-year high, according to an analysis of the latest government data by the Associated General Contractors of America Association.

In the St. Louis region, contractors and unions report they are near full-employment, but a shortage of next generation tradesmen and women is making recruitment a top priority for many local construction companies.

Tom Finan, executive director of the Construction Forum St. Louis, said the current worker shortage is not a crisis, “It’s a looming storm in construction.”

Retiring baby boomers are shrinking the ranks in the trades workforce, but they are not the only cause of the workforce shortage according to Finan. He said a failure to recruit a new generation of diverse workers has contributed to the current shortage.

“What we have historically and currently is a lack of diverse workers in the industry," he said. "And whether that’s African American, women, Hispanics, we have not done a good job of bringing them into our industry.”

John Gaal, director of training and workforce development with the St. Louis and Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council, said the unions have been active in recruiting apprentices through programs targeting diverse candidates in high schools, veterans groups and former felons, among others, for the past 25 years.

“I’m a firm believer that unless and until we graduate more women and people of color from the apprentice programs, we’re still going to be talking about this 10 years from now,” Gaal said. “When you earn a journeyman credential, it opens the door to many opportunities from job sites to entrepreneurship.”

Gateway Arch Visitor Center and Museum construction.
Credit McCarthy Building Companies
Gateway Arch Visitor Center and Museum construction.

It's not your father's industry

John Buescher, president of the central region for McCarthy Building Companies, said recruiting the next generation of journeymen and women has become a fulltime effort at his company.

“There’s a lot of pressure on kids to go to four-year colleges. Entering into construction trades is not something that is looked favorably upon,” Buescher said.

“We're really trying to fight that image, because it is absolutely not true. It's not your father's industry anymore,” Buescher said most high-school students are very surprised to see how much technology — like drones — are used in construction today.

McCarthy is not alone in re-branding careers in construction. Tarlton is partnering with BJC to offer career counseling and hands-on experience at a trailer on the building site of the new Siteman Cancer Center at Christian Hospital in Florissant.

McCarthy’s Buescher said recruiting the next generation is a marketing and education effort. “We’re going to elementary schools, and we're going to middle schools and high schools, and we're going to all-girls high schools and colleges. We take students out on one of our sites for a day and educate them on what a career in construction could really look like.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that construction employment will grow faster than average for all occupations from 2016 to 2026. What's more — at a median wage of about $45,000 a year — the earning potential for construction work is higher than the median for all occupations of $37,690.

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