Construction Industry Labor Shortages Loom in Arkansas

Leaders in the Arkansas construction industry are expecting demand soon will begin to exceed supply in some important building trades.

Those anticipated shortages start in the near future with electricians, plumbers and masons as the economy rebounds and construction demand picks up.

“It’s those skilled crafts like that,” said Bill Hannah, CEO of Nabholz Construction Corp. of Conway. “That shortage has existed for some time even with the economic downturn.

“We expect as the economy improves we’ll be back to where we were in 2006, with shortages in a larger number of crafts.”

Hannah notes the venues are in place to provide the training for career craftsman. However, apprenticeship requirements, some with five years of on-the-job training, bring a time commitment into play that many aren’t willing to accept.

The chance to make around $30,000 a year starting out isn’t enough to lure a new generation of craftsman into the construction job market.

“How do you replace an aging workforce? I don’t know what the solution is,” Hannah said. “It’s harder to attract young people. I think it’s a generational issue.

“We’re seeing fewer and fewer young people wanting to pursue construction crafts. To me, it’s definitely not a pay issue.

“The problem is finding the people who want to do this kind of work, people recognizing the career opportunity in those crafts.”

The emphasis on college education and a white-collar career path is reinforcing a societal barrier to the construction field, where the image of blue-collar labor still prevails.

“Let’s face it, not everyone is cut out for college,” said Richard Hedgecock, executive vice president of the

Arkansas chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America. “There is a mental hurdle we need to get over that you can only succeed if you have a college degree.

“Is the old-school apprenticeship program the right way? I don’t know.”

Hedgecock said there’s a bigger discussion beyond the fundamental question of “Are we going to see a shortage of qualified, trained workers, and how are we going to get ahead of that curve?”

He said that overarching topic is tied to feedback from AGC members on what they see as the biggest area of need.

“By far and away, it’s further education and training,” Hedgecock said. “They see that for themselves and for their employees and their future employees. We’re embarking on a whole exploration of ‘What does that look like?’”

Robert Unwer, president of Nabco Mechanical & Electrical Contractors in Conway, said the industry needs to step up efforts to tout the selling points of both blue-collar and white-collar opportunities in construction.

We’re not seeing younger people migrate to the construction industry,” Unwer said. “They want a profession that’s more glamorous than construction.

“What we have to do is start tearing down that barrier and getting the word out that it is more glamorous and there are more opportunities out there.

“The earnings and wages are here. The benefits are here. We need to get out and sell it to the younger generation.”

He said there are career opportunities with prerequisite computer skills that don’t necessarily require conventional four-year college degree programs. More two-year programs are beginning to come on line to provide schooling in areas such as building information modeling. BIM can take a building layout and place it in 3-D environment.

This computerized arena facilitates time-cost saving during the construction process and allows contractors to better determine prefabricating options and other important planning considerations.

“You may not need more than two years’ education combined with serving an internship,” Unwer said. “After that, you can literally start running the program. The future in construction is education and developing something that will sell and reduce costs. That can be done with computers.”