Florida’s surging construction industry faces worker shortage

worker shortageSince joining his father’s construction crew when he was 16, Casey Ellison has ridden 21 years of Florida building booms and busts and construction industry faces worker shortage.

This time, though, the recovery is playing out a different way. As both commercial and residential development picks up, construction managers are having a hard time filling their crews, particularly subcontractors like electricians, plumbers, drywallers and carpenters.

“We don’t seem to be bringing the workforce back in the market like we’ve typically seen in the past,” Ellison said. The shortage “is a little more profound now.”

Part of the problem is the loss of experienced workers who fled Florida to pursue the fracking boom in states like North Dakota and Texas. Part is tied to a demographic squeeze: Aging, experienced baby boomers are retiring and their younger comrades who have been shell-shocked by the recession aren’t embracing building trades as a career.

Steve Cona of the local chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors highlighted the trend line during a recent Tampa forecasting event. He noted that nearly 21 percent of skilled construction workers are 55 or older, and 29 percent are 45 to 54 years old. “We’re not replacing those people fast enough,” Cona said.

He expects the shortage will only worsen with major projects intensifying — from a $1 billion overhaul of Tampa International Airport to a $1 billion redevelopment of the southern edge of downtown Tampa, an effort led by Tampa Bay Lightning owner/budding real estate tycoon Jeff Vinik.

Florida is hardly the only place facing a shortage.

A recent survey by the National Association of Home Builders found 46 percent of builders reported a worker shortage last year. That’s the highest across the nine trades surveyed since 2000, and even slightly higher than the peak of the housing boom in 2005 when housing starts were running at the pace of 2 million a year, or about twice the current rate.

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