Cape Fear Community College’s second annual construction career day in April attracted a few of the college’s own students. But the majority of attendees came from seven area high schools. Mark Council, CFCC’s dean of industry and technological education, estimates that as many as 250 teens came to the event to learn about careers in the construction industry.
Holding that career-day event was one way that the college hopes to spread the word about the unmet demand for people in the construction industry.
“Where most companies are suffering is in the actual trades. Our students are getting hired; there are just not enough of them,” Council said. “Some students get employed in co-ops and internships while they are in school.”
Competition is stiff for students going into CFCC’s vocational programs. That competition, Council said, exists within the area’s construction companies but comes also from opportunities in other specialized trades.
“It’s a tough market. GE and Corning people are retiring,” he said, explaining that those companies, which pay well and have good benefits, are hiring replacements. “People are going to go where the money pays. Manufacturing, you’re working in a 70-degree room and making $25 an hour. That’s where people are going to go.”
CFCC offers a variety of construction-related trade courses, both as part of its regular curriculum and through continuing education programs. The courses run the gamut, from basic carpentry to electrical systems, plumbing and HVAC technologies. There’s also a Construction Management Program, whose grads can either enter the field directly or transfer to a four-year program such as the one offered at East Carolina University.
Demand for the Construction Management Program is great enough that CFCC just hired its second full-time instructor, Council said.
Bryan Thomas, president of Monteith Construction Corp., said his company reaches out to young people in high school and community college before those students make up their minds about their career paths.
“We are looking for people to think about us as their first choice,” he said.
Recently, a roomful of students in CFCC’s Construction Management Program heard directly from one such company: Grey Interiors, a company that does drywall, metal framing and wall systems.
“The main purpose of this presentation was to educate these students on avenues they can pursue with a degree in the construction field,” said Grey Interiors’ Michael Shook. “The students were very receptive and engaged in what we had to say. Most questions were based around appropriate steps they need to take to ensure a quality employment once graduated.”
For the second time this summer, the college’s continuing education arm is offering a Construction Institute that provides non-certificate or non-diploma training in a number of construction-related skills. That program can attract even DIYers who want to hang their own drywall or fix a leak without disastrous consequences.
But really addressing the area’s labor shortage requires reaching the right audience with the message that the construction industry offers good career paths, Council says. And that means connecting with parents.
“We have pushed [young] people to bachelor’s degrees for decades,” he said. “Parents are still pushing. We are getting in to the middle school PTAs and PTOs. We have got to reach the middle school parents.”
Thomas agrees that changing perceptions about the building trades is critical to creating a pipeline of skilled workers.
The construction industry has the unfortunate reputation of being the industry of last resort for career-minded workers, whereas “it should be on the forefront of people’s minds,” Thomas said. He admits that the current labor climate, with low unemployment and high demand for construction trades, is challenging.
“Lots of contractors like ourselves are looking for the best,” he said, “so we have to rethink how to skin the cat.”
To fill the company’s own positions, its human resources department looks for “top talent, but not necessarily within the industry,” Thomas said. That means finding people who have “brains and passion” for a particular kind of work and skills that are transferable from other industries.
Once they find applicants with those qualities, Monteith can train them for specific jobs, whether that be a desk job or out in the field.
The company has hired some hard-to-place workers through programs like StepUp Wilmington for its hands-on construction projects. To make those experiences successful, Monteith has set up a supervisory structure with trainers and mentors on-site.
Monteith, with offices in Charleston and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, as well as Raleigh and Wilmington, subcontracts about 80% of its work. To ensure that subcontractors are available for its projects, Monteith cultivates relationships with subcontractors and, to the extent possible, plans ahead.
In today’s high-demand climate, subcontrators “are picky and can choose the work that makes sense to them,” Thomas said. “They are also planning for the future. We spend a lot of time planning what makes sense for them, helping them do their work and get paid. We hope they will work with us. It’s communication, planning, relationships. That’s our fix for the labor shortage. You’ve got to have good partners.”
Rob Zapple, owner of Rob Zapple Design & Build, specializes in custom homes. As a sole proprietor with no fixed crew, he also relies on subcontractors for his projects. And right now, he’s in a seller’s market.
“It’s a stark contrast to just a few years ago, when subcontractors would call me, asking for any kind of work,” he said. “Now all the subcontractors are under a lot of pressure from companies that are building. There are not enough qualified subs that do carpentry, electric, plumbing and finished carpentry.”
Zapple, who is currently in the middle of a custom job, says it’s not just a matter of getting the right subcontractors to work on the project: it’s hoping they will have time to give him estimates, or even to call him back. The labor drought makes it difficult for him to estimate jobs and create project schedules.
“The whole concept of negotiating and getting multiple bids is out the door,” he said, adding he is thankful for the many relationships with subcontractors he has built up over the years. Those relationships pay off in terms of crews making an effort to accommodate him.
“How do we create a pipeline of new construction workers?” asked Zapple, who is also a member of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners. “These are good-paying careers. We’ve got to fill those seats at SEA-Tech [the New Hanover County Schools vocational high school].”
Originally skeptical of the idea of high school vocational training or marketing careers in the building trades to middle- and high-school students, Zapple says that the construction labor shortage has changed his mind.