Atlanta building rebound strains worker supply

Josh Cox works for a huge manufacturer, doing what he likes to do, doing what he was trained for at Kennesaw Mountain High School and at Georgia Trade School.

He’s a welder.

“It’s a great job to have,” said Cox. “You have to be okay with being hot and dirty all day, but if you’re okay with that, it’s a great job to have.”

His starting pay was $16 an hour and got boosted after a year to $20 an hour.

Not bad for a 19-year-old, said Cox, who’s been on the job for about 18 months now. “The sky is the limit for welders here as far as promotions and pay. Our shop manager started as a welder and now he makes in the six figures.”

Cox and some other young people – encouraged by new programs in public schools – are taking advantage of what many contractors and state officials say is an unexpected shortage.

Not long ago, the recession hammered markets in both residential and commercial building, eliminating tens of thousands of construction jobs

. Now there’s a boom in building and not enough people trained to do the work, according to the Associated General Contractors, which estimates that one-third of the construction employees working on the new Braves stadium had never worked on a construction site before.

Continued growth means the state will need 20 percent more construction workers within three years, the AGC projected.

Yet there’s an argument about exactly what that shortage is, and the trade unions – which have their own training programs – say companies are misrepresenting the situation.

“There is absolutely no shortage for electricians, pipe-fitters, ironworkers, painters, plumbers,” said Gene O’Kelley, business manager for local 613 of the IBEW, the electricians’ union. “But they are looking for cheap labor. And there’s a shortage of those guys.”

The dispute is part of a longstanding divide.

Non-union contractors often say union workers cost too much, adding to the expense of projects. The unions say they deserve higher pay, since they have had more extensive training.

“We are not going to work for less money,” O’Kelley said.

He concedes that sometimes it’s hard to find construction workers, but he says if a contractor wants workers, the unions can bring them in from other cities where there is less building.

“I could put a thousand electricians on the job in a couple or three weeks, just by putting the word out,” he said.

Either way, there’s not much arguing with demographics.

Wave of departures

Many experienced workers have been retiring, a wave of departures that was amplified by the recession and has continued as the building boom intensified. Yet to many young people, construction hasn’t had much allure.

The cry of shortage from companies has convinced some local schools to ramp up courses aimed at feeding the need. The state has likewise been promoting technical schools programs that are aimed at young people who – for financial or other reasons – are unlikely to attend college.

A couple generations ago, a young person without a college degree could look to factory work as a path to a middle class income. Now, a combination of technology and globalization has eliminated many of those jobs.

So construction can be an option for the non-college bound. It pays less than the average for metro Atlanta, but better than many blue-collar alternatives.

Pay for construction work in metro Atlanta averages $19.24 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That comes to $40,019 a year on a 40-hour week.

Hourly pay overall in the region averages $23.72, or $49,421 a year.

A lot of construction work pays much better than that average, said Jeremy Whitaker, a former carpenter and owner of a construction company, now a teacher at Kennesaw Mountain High.

“Once you are a licensed electrician or licensed welder, you can start out making $60,000 or more a year,” he said. “Whenever demand for something goes up, the pay goes up. And demand for welders and all skilled trades is up.”

Averages for some other sectors requiring no college:

— Office work, $17.55 an hour

— Logistics, $16.98 an hour

— Healthcare support, $13.97 an hour

— Maintenance, $12.41 an hour

— Food preparation, $9.90 an hour.

Nearly one-third of the students who finish the three-semester course do go into the field, Whitaker said.

The idea has even filtered down into at least one middle school: Crabapple in Roswell.

Hands-on skills

Teacher Kevin Squiers said he sees value in showing younger students some of the hands-on skills, even if they do not make construction a career.

Naomi Ulber, 11, a sixth grader, said she enjoys making things, although she doesn’t think this is her future career. “We have been learning about tools and what they are used for. We’ve built birdhouses,” she said. “I might want to be a pediatrician or a news reporter.”

At Roswell High School, teacher Brad Elliott smiled as he collected test papers from students studying safety. “They learn everything from ‘don’t hit yourself with a hammer’ to OSHA specifications.”

About 115 students have chosen to be part of the school’s construction program, which is in its fourth year, said Elliott, an electrician. But some take it more seriously than others: To make that point he keeps two Adirondack chairs, one put together with skill and care, the other, not so much.

One of the serious ones is sophomore Clayton Johnson, 15. Last summer, he worked in construction, doing the “punch-outs” – that is, the finishing touches like doors and windows – for new homes.

“I chose this because I want to follow my dad and what he’s done with his company,” he said. It was hot, of course. “But I’d like to start in the field and work up to being a supervisor.”

The work is satisfying, even if he’s leaning more toward architecture as a career, said junior Denzel Shirley, 16, who is in his second year of the program.

Shirley worked as an intern for a large general contractor, helping to build a corporate cafeteria.

“I also did some work outside putting up walls. It was great to see it all go up. Honestly, it seems kind of cool to build something and see how the end product looks.”

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