Local colleges seek to fill the need for workers in the construction trades
By Cristina Janney
The construction industry is facing a shortage of workers locally and nationally, delaying and adding costs to much-needed housing projects.
The industry needs 650,000 workers to meet demand in 2022, according to Associated Builders and Contractors.
The labor dilemma worsens as skilled workers age and fewer young people replace them.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five construction workers is over the age of 55.
Local schools, such as NCK Tech and the Department of Applied Technology at Fort Hays State University are working to fill positions with new workers, but gaps remain, said Doug Williams, executive director of Grow. Hays.
Williams said the area lacked carpenters and companies capable of building foundations and basements. He said only one basement company, based in Larned, is available in the area.
“It’s not a lot of competition and makes us quite vulnerable,” Williams said.
Williams said a local developer has installed eight basements, but is waiting up to 45 days to get framers on site.
He said the labor shortage is creating a cascading effect on the housing market.
“It pushes everything back and slows down the process,” Williams said. “Our ability to get these houses built and allow people to move in and sell the houses they’re in – that slows down the whole chain of events.”
Williams said a lack of competition also tends to drive higher prices. Along with delays, developers also face volatility in the materials market. If they don’t know if material costs will go up or down, they need to plan for contingencies in their budgets.
Train the next generation of workers
Pay is high for workers who go into specialized fields, such as plumbers, electricians, HVAC professionals, and carpenters.
“If you can learn a trade, you can be assured of a job and a good life,” he said.
NCK Tech graduated 18 students from its construction trades program this spring. Twenty-three students are enrolled in the nine-month program which begins in the fall. The program has a waiting list.
NCK Tech carpentry and cabinetmaking instructor Brandon Jacobs said the school’s graduates are in high demand. Businesses from across the state visit the campus to recruit students.
“This type of business is in high demand right now,” Jacobs said. “We are at full capacity in terms of students, but it seems the field is in short supply. Everyone is looking for help in almost any trade, not just construction and carpentry.”
Cody Blew of Phillipsburg was one of the program’s May graduates. Blew entered the NCK Tech program directly after high school.
“There’s a lot of work and it’s fulfilling work,” he said of his choice of the construction trade. “It’s something the world needs.”
Carpentry student Demetrio Flores from Liberal will continue at NCK Tech in the business management path. He hopes to eventually own his own construction business.
Flores started his studies at Fort Hays State University, but said he didn’t think it was the right place for him and switched after a year.
“There is a lot of work to do,” he said. “There will always be carpentry work wherever you go.”
The culmination of the NCK Tech carpentry program is the construction of a house, which was auctioned off in the spring. The students design and choose all the materials for the house, Jacobs said.
The FHSU program is growing rapidly
FHSU has two tracks in the building trades – construction technology and construction management.
Students in both streams will likely become foremen or superintendents. Students in the applied technology stream are more likely to enter the residential market, and students in the management stream are more likely to work in commercial construction, said Kim Stewart, president of the Center for Applied Technology.
Although accounting for inflation, construction spending over the past 12 months is down, more workers will be needed to complete projects created by the Federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 1 .2 trillion dollars.
Ten years ago, the department created the construction management course with two students. The course now has 80 students. The construction technology major has around 20 students. The program not only attracts students from Kansas, but also from surrounding states.
The department has a placement rate of 96% to 98% within one year of graduation. Stewart partly attributed the high placement rate to the two internships most students complete before graduating.
This summer, the program has 49 internship students. These students were placed locally and across the Midwest.
Stewart said the construction management industry is expected to grow 10% to 11% over the next five to eight years.
Entry-level construction managers can make between $55,000 and $60,000 a year, Stewart said.
Stewart said FHSU graduates would likely work on similar projects at the Applied Technology Center building, which was a multimillion-dollar project.
Graduates are also hired to work on roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects.