By Rob Sabo, Nevada Appeal, July 10, 2023
Northern Nevada’s construction workforce has been hit by a quadruple-whammy that’s made it extremely difficult for regional employers to attract new employees to the construction trades.
The combination of a lack of youth choosing to enter the trades, the near-total overhaul of the regional workforce due to industry diversification, the ongoing stigma that college provides a more robust career path, and a mass exodus of skilled trades workers during the last big recession has stifled the number of entrants into the construction industry.
It’s been an ongoing battle for years, and the Nevada Chapter of Associated General Contractors has decided to take the offensive in the fight for headcount. It recently announced the hire of Dani Hamilton as workforce development coordinator and the launch of a new website, WeBuildNevada.org, to help attract new workers to both union and non-union companies, as well as to help upskill existing employees so they can more quickly step into senior-level field positions and backfill the void left by aging journey-level workers readying for retirement, said Craig Madole, chief executive officer of Nevada Chapter AGC.
“Starting in 2008, the recession for the construction industry in Northern Nevada was so deep and so long that we missed a whole generation of potential employees,” Madole said. “We couldn’t recruit a new workforce because we didn’t need a new workforce. There was very little being built for seven or eight years.”
The extended building boom that’s slowly turned The Biggest Little City into The Biggest Little Mid-Sized City is taking a toll on regional construction employers — there’s plenty of work, but not enough manpower. There’s no area of the construction industry that’s unaffected, Madole said. Carpenters, plumbers, pipefitters, sheet metal workers, heavy equipment operators, diesel mechanics, and all others who make the wheels of the construction industry turn are in short supply.
“The construction economy has not just rebounded, it’s going great, and it looks like it will be very busy for many more years,” Madole said. “We need people. We also need people for long-term solutions to replace those that will be retiring over the next decade. We need a sustainable pipeline to the trades both for union and non-union contractors.
“There’s a need for every craft in our industry,” Madole added. “The natural pipeline dried up, and so we need to invest to re-create one.”
Historically, enough youth graduating from high school entered the trades to keep a robust pipeline of new employees. Today, the building trades are competing with hundreds of new companies in the manufacturing, distribution and fulfillment spaces for the same pool of entry-level workers. Construction has taken a backseat in regard to workforce interest.
There’s also some lingering stigma — perhaps rightfully so — that the construction workforce is vulnerable to the next big recession. According to the state Department of Employment, Training & Rehabilitation, construction employment in Greater Reno-Sparks peaked in June 2006 at 25,500. By March 2011, that number had plummeted to 7,400, a 71 percent decline. In May 2023, despite the nearly decades-long building regional boom that has transformed Northern Nevada into the one of West’s most-desirable technology, advanced manufacturing and internet fulfillment hubs, construction employment stood at 23,200.
The CEO of Nevada Chapter AGC said a portion of the plan to drum up more interest and attract more employees to the building trades starts with having an increased presence in local charter and high schools, and by partnering with regional community colleges and the University of Nevada, Reno, as well as Nevadaworks, DETR, and local union chapters.
“We are kind of flying the airplane while we are building it,” he said. “We need to partner with everybody to try to fill the need, because it isn’t just guys in the field. We also need the next set of project managers, engineers, estimators – we need people at all levels.
“There is no cap on what you can do (in the building trades) if you are competent, capable and work hard,” Madole added. “We know college isn’t for everybody. There are other great career opportunities, and that’s part of the mindset we need to change and overcome.”
Chris Burke, vice president and Nevada regional manager for Granite Construction, told NNBW that the Nevada Chapter AGC’s workforce development initiative has a two-fold purpose. Attraction is important, but so too is upskilling existing employees.
“We have seen a steady decline of people entering the trades, and we just need more people,” Burke said. “As the economy has picked back up, we need a much larger workforce, and they just aren’t there.
“With our own company, we are heavily weighted on an older, more experienced workforce,” Burke added. “They are on their way to retirement in the coming years, and the employees ready to backfill those jobs aren’t ready yet. Part of this initiative is to be able to fast-track their development.”
Burke said workers with supervisory experience gained in the field often work hand-in-hand with project estimators and other office staff who earned bachelor’s degrees in construction management and related disciplines. Their on-the-ground experience provides invaluable insight into the back-end of the construction process, he said.
Recruitment is perhaps the biggest push, but providing opportunities for career advancement for existing construction workers is equally important, he added.
“There are so many employers you can work for. Figuring out early on when to get young kids to go into the trades is a tremendous opportunity, and quite frankly, no one has figured it out yet. That’s part of our (AGC’s) strategic plan to help our members with that.
“As we dove into the strategic plan, educating the existing workforce and training them is as important as recruiting,” Burke added. “During the last recession we saw a lot of people leave the industry and not come back. If we don’t train employees and help them become supervisors, we run the risk of them leaving too.”