Strong economic growth and a shallow pool of workers have combined to stress construction companies, according to a recently released survey of Georgia firms.
But it’s not just front-line laborers, it’s a relative shortage of managerial recruits as well, according to a survey by accounting firm Bennett Thrasher and the construction management department at Kennesaw State University.
“They just don’t seem to be replacing people as fast as those people are retiring,” said Tom Jollay, a co-leader in the construction practice of Bennett Thrasher.
Overall, the evidence is clear that the construction industry is doing well, he said. “When you see cranes out the window and cones on the road as you drive, I think that means that the construction industry is doing well.”
The survey, the first such Georgia-specific look at construction firms, showed 87 percent of construction firms call the search for skilled workers their top problem.
The shortage goes from field workers to office workers, Jollay said: It includes entry-level, lower-skilled laborers, skilled specialized workers like pipefitters and brick masons, as well as the project managers and superintendents.
There are now 180,000 construction workers across the state, with the lion’s share in metro Atlanta, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Construction was one of the crucial sectors in the economic boom that crashed along with the housing market, starting in 2007. Many of the jobs – especially the skilled trade positions like electricians and welders – did not require college degrees but still paid better-than-average wages.
At its peak, construction employed more than 224,000 workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By early 2012, the sector had fallen below 141,000 workers before the turnaround finally began.
While some companies disappeared during the recession, there are now 2,368 privately-held construction companies in Georgia, according to Jollay. “They range from pretty big firms down to one- or two-men outfits that work out of a ick-up truck.”
Roughly three out of four construction companies are based in metro Atlanta.
The prognosis is good: More than six in ten firms said they expect to add employees this year and just a small share say they expect to shrink.
But as long as the economy grows, construction is likely to move in the same direction, Jollay said. “The industry just responds to people who say, ‘I want to build this building.’ The backlog of orders is enough to get them through the year to 2018.”
Despite the demand for construction, a lack of workers could pose a threat to businesses, he said.
“If the job opportunities and the demand is there, but we can’t get the workforce to do it, that is a restriction,” Jollay said. “Then, if I’m a contractor, I won’t be able to commit to work because if I do and then can’t do it, that hurts my reputation.”
If that happens across the sector, it could cool growth the same way a lack of capital chills expansions.