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Facing a labor shortage, construction tries to rebrand

Amy Scott Apr 11, 2019
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On a recent morning in downtown Denver, a group of high school kids sat in a classroom taking a quiz. The students were on a field trip to the Construction Industry Training Council of Colorado, to learn about apprenticeships. Executive Director Cori Gerlitz gave the sales pitch.

“What’s the average salary for first-year apprentices in the construction industry?” she asked the group. As dramatic game show music played, the kids punched their guesses into an app on their phones. The answer popped up on a screen: $15 per hour. And that was an old number, Gerlitz told them. “I’ve got people who are coming into the school right now, no experience, they’re making anywhere from $15 to $17 an hour, depending upon their trades,” Gerlitz said.

Wages are rising because employers are desperate for workers like masons, pipefitters and electricians.

“It is absolutely at crisis level,” Gerlitz said. In Colorado, she said, the industry will need at least 30,000 new workers within the next several years. In a recent survey by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and USG Corp., which makes building materials, 70 percent of construction firms nationally said they were struggling to make deadlines because they can’t find enough workers.

Chris Salas, 21, practices building a straight wall as an apprentice with the Construction Industry Training Council in Denver.

There are many reasons for the shortage, said Jennifer Scanlon, CEO of USG Corp. The industry is still recovering from the housing downturn and recession, she said, when 2 million construction jobs disappeared. Today, with so many choices in a strong job market, many of those workers haven’t come back. Shop classes have vanished from many high schools and more kids are encouraged to go to college instead of pursuing trades. And, Scanlon said, the industry is also facing an image problem.

“People think of construction as dirty jobs,” she said. “People think of it as jobs that only require brute strength. People view it as jobs that don’t require real training or skills, and quite frankly, they view it as a job instead of a career.”

Groups like Denver’s training council are trying to change those perceptions by talking up the high pay, the technology used on construction sites — like drones and virtual reality — the opportunities for women and for advancement.

“If you want to excel, you don’t have to lay brick your whole life,” said Fred Soderberg, who teaches the masonry apprentices. At 68, he’s now a superintendent for a large builder and has left his mark on Denver. “I tell them it’s really gratifying to go around and see what you’ve built,” he said. “I’ve had the pleasure of doing Coors Field, the Broncos stadium, the airport and lots of big things.”

Instructor Fred Soderberg has been a mason for 50 years, working on projects like Coors Field and Denver International Airport.

Chris Salas, 21, is a first-year apprentice. He thought about other careers before taking up the family trade. His father and grandfather were masons.

“I dreamed of working in a bank, and the office and all that,” he said. “But I started as a dad young, so I had to grow up and get a hard job so it could give me a little bit more pay.”

Salas works full-time at a job site and goes to class one night a week. When he finishes his three-year apprenticeship, he can expect to make at least $30 an hour, or more than $60,000 a year. Soderberg, his teacher, wishes he could speed up the clock.

“All the contractors do not have enough masons,” he said. “In Denver alone we need at least 100 more.”

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