Construction worker shortage demands action, group says

Despite fleets of cranes, trucks and bulldozers, it is a shortage in workers that threatens to dampen the pace of construction in Georgia, according to a report from a builders group.

The problem is national, but the recent resurgence of building in metro Atlanta has made Georgia one of the state's with the largest shortfalls, said the Associated Contractors of America, whose members include more than 26,000 firms.

"Seventy-two percent of firms say they are having trouble finding craft workers to hire," said Stephen Sandherr, chief executive of Associated General Contractors of America, whose members include more than 26,000 firms.

Far more workers are leaving the industry than entering, said the AGC report.

To get the work done, contractors find themselves paying more, offering incentives and taking on projects short-handed with a less experienced workforce. The result is lower productivity, higher costs and a need to spend more time teaching safety.

Recent growth includes two massive sports stadiums. The new Braves stadium accounts for roughly 1,500 construction jobs, and the new Falcons stadium for about 2,000 jobs, Dunham said.

By some estimates, one-third of the construction employees working on the new Braves stadium in Cobb County had never worked on a construction site before, said Michael Dunham, chief executive of Associated General Contractors of Georgia.

Continued growth means that the state, which has about 180,000 construction workers, will need 218,000 within three years, he said.

In metro Atlanta, there are currently about 116,800 construction workers, up 7,800 from a year ago, according to the AGC.

That number would be a lot higher if all the open positions were filled, Dunham said. “Everyone in our membership is looking for someone right now.”

The good news for workers – at least in the short run – is higher pay: 38 percent of contractors surveyed in Georgia said they have raised their base pay for construction workers, according to the AGC.

The median pay for a carpenter in Georgia is $21.08 an hour. The median for an electrician, $22.32 an hour, Dunham said. “It is the basic economics of supply and demand.”

The peak of Georgia construction employment came in the spring of 2007 when the state had 224,000 construction workers. Back then, construction accounted for 5.4 percent of all workers – more than one out of twenty. Now, its share is just 4.1 percent of the total.

But it is still a significant source of jobs for workers who do not have college degrees, jobs that pay much better than the minimum wage – especially in the union positions.

The AGC report was released today during a press conference at a College Park construction site, where workers from Batson-Cook were in the midst of work on a new Renaissance Hotel not far from the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.

AGC officials called for more vocational education, construction-focused schools and a reinvigorated “pipeline” taking young people from high school to careers in construction.

Those kinds of training programs are much more cost-effective than government subsidies, according to a Washington, D.C. group.

That group, known as Good Jobs First, said today it will release a Labor Day report "that will draw sharp distinctions between low-cost, low-risk workforce development programs and extremely high-cost 'megadeals' involving economic development subsidies worth hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars per job."

Both the Braves and Falcons stadiums have had government support.