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St. Louis construction firm sees minorities and women as keys to labor shortage

McCarthy Building Companies foreman Kevon White says he had no experience in construction before 2015.
Danny Wicentowski
St. Louis Public Radio
Skilled construction workers like Kevon White can earn high pay — but many companies are struggling with a labor shortage.

In spring 2015, Kevon White knew he needed a better job. His wife was pregnant with triplets, and his family was about to grow from three to six children. His job at a local casino just wasn’t going to cut it.

Eventually, White’s job search led him to McCarthy Building Cos. Now, after several promotions, he’s working for the company as a foreman.

“I just went on the hunt,” White said, reflecting on his job path during Friday’s St. Louis on the Air. “I knew I wasn't going to hit the lottery. I knew it wasn't going to be easy. But I just started my journey … looking for another job.”

White’s path from being completely inexperienced in the skilled construction field to overseeing other workers is an example that the construction industry desperately needs to replicate, said Ryan Molen, senior vice president at McCarthy.

McCarthy Building Companies senior vice president Ryan Molen says his company is finding ways of overcoming the labor shortage.
Danny Wicentowski
St. Louis Public Radio
Ryan Molen, McCarthy Building Cos. senior vice president, says his company is finding ways of overcoming the labor shortage.

“We have this workforce that's aging out,” Molen observed during Friday’s show. “We need to grow the workforce. But we also need to increase diversity.”

The shortage of skilled labor is being felt both locally and nationally. Molen identified multiple variables behind the shortage, such as older workers taking advantage of good retirement benefits and burned-out workers leaving the industry during the pandemic. But he argues that replacing those workers will take new strategies and training programs — and that means reaching out to people who have not historically been involved in the industry, particularly women and minorities.

Another part of McCarthy’s strategy involves putting the construction field on the radar of young people and engaging with kids as early as grade school.

“A lot of folks are not considering construction [jobs], because they're just not aware of them,” Molen said. He added that many kids simply haven’t been exposed to “how great those jobs are, what the benefits are, what kind of pay there is.”

Molen said McCarthy has organized multiple training programs geared to students, including sponsoring “STEM Saturdays” at the Parkway School District and hosting a training session with female students from more than a dozen area high schools, demonstrating examples of drywall framing, electrical work and formed concrete.

Still, there’s a lot of work to be done to reverse the current shortage of skilled workers. The 2021 State of the St. Louis Workforce Report found that local employers need an average of 42 days to fill positions for construction laborers, despite those workers earning an average of $57,000.

Confronting St. Louis' labor shortage

Workers also continue to leave the industry: Earlier this week, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released its March 2022 data on hiring and labor turnover — and found that the month’s reported “quits” in the national construction industry are up by 69,000. In total, 389,000 construction workers left the industry in March.

But Molen says he’s optimistic about the industry’s future, especially when McCarthy can attract and retain employees like White.

White’s triplets, meanwhile, just turned 7. He told St. Louis on the Air that he credits his kids with giving him the push that brought him to McCarthy — and to an industry that was willing to invest the time and training in a fresh hire.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowskiand Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."