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Builders scramble for skilled workers

John Seelmeyer
jseelmeyer@nnbw.biz

Ken Dillon is spreading the word as far as he can — Salt Lake City, Portland and beyond — that his Sparks-based D&D Roofing needs to hire about as many skilled roofers as it can, right now.

“It’s unbelievable,” says Dillon, president of the roofing contractor that operates from offices in Elko, Carson City and Portola, Calif. “With the little uptick that we’ve had, we really need 20 trained roofers. We can’t find them.”

Dillon isn’t alone.

Construction executives throughout northern Nevada already have been scrambling to assemble a workforce to meet the ordinary demands of a commercial construction market that began to stir back to life in the past 18 months.

With the likelihood of a Tesla-inspired boom just over the horizon, some construction contractors are deeply worried about their ability to find enough skilled workers to handle all the jobs headed their way.

In the past 12 months, construction companies in the Reno-Sparks area have boosted their employment by 600 workers, hiring 200 in August alone, says the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation. That’s a 5.6 percent annual growth rate. Statewide, construction employment in the past year has been growing at nearly a 9 percent annual clip.

Dillon, whose employee-owned firm carried 250 employees before the recession and 100 afterward, says Reno’s relatively late recovery isn’t helping the region’s contractors.

Construction recovered in northern California, Las Vegas and other regional markets earlier, and skilled workers picked up their tools and left northern Nevada for steady work elsewhere.

Now they’re understandably skeptical that the construction activity in the Reno-Sparks area will last long enough to justify pulling the kids of school to head back to northern Nevada.

Paul McKenzie, executive secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Council of Northern Nevada, says the unions now are convinced that the recovery is sustainable — even if the big Tesla project lasts only a little more than a year.

And convinced that construction jobs are here to stay, the construction unions are stepping up and speeding up their apprenticeship programs. They’re back in touch with folks who expressed interest in apprenticeship programs in the days when openings were few, and they’re talking with high school and community college students as well as currently employed people who are interested in a career change.

Most critically, McKenzie says the Construction Trades Council is moving toward an accelerated program to provide training in construction basics such as safety to mixed groups of new apprentices before sending them out to learn their individual trades.

But the growth of apprenticeship programs is limited, he says, because newcomers need to be supervised by journey- and master-level workers, and many of those experienced workers left town during the downturn.

Dillon says some supervisors on D&D’s jobs these days have less experience than their predecessors in years past, the company is doing lots of training on the job, and its supervisors are working long hours with newly promoted foremen.

Some specialty contractors face other hurdles.

Installation workers with Hamilton Solar, for instance, need a Nevada OSHA photovoltaic installer’s license.

“It takes here or four days of study to pass the test,” says Reid Hamilton, a founder of the Reno-based firm. “It’s a huge hurdle for us.”

And once Hamilton Solar workers earn the PV license, big competitors often woo them away to big jobs in southern Nevada.

Along with the effects of the long downturn, the construction industry is battling demographic trends as retiring Baby Boomers leave big gaps behind them.

Lance Semenko, chief operating officer for Q&D Construction, has added recruitment efforts to his already crowded work schedule.

He’s met recently with representatives of Reno-Sparks middle and high schools, as well as Truckee Meadows Community College and the University of Nevada, Reno, about recruitment efforts for the construction industry.

“My biggest goal is to get some kids interested in our industry,” he says. “I have been meeting with a lot of people trying to figure out how we go about recruiting for operators, carpenters, laborers. How do we capture those kids and let them know what kind of money they can make and the type of living they can afford without go to college through construction industry?”

No matter what the cause of the tight labor market, it brings sleepless nights to contractors such as Dillon.

A couple of years ago, executives at D&D Roofing were scrambling to find any sort of job, no matter how small, to keep the lights on. Now, they’re forced to turn away some work simply because they can’t find workers.