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While construction booms, St. Louis contractors face workforce crisis

Building boom and workforce shortage combine to create a crisis in construction industry
Melody Walker | St. Louis Public Radio
Center for Nursing and Health Sciences at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park is one of many major projects under construction in St. Louis. A workforce shortage is leaving many contractors wondering how they can fill jobs.

The workforce shortage in the construction industry is not going away.

A survey by the Associated General Contractors of America found that 80 percent of Midwest contractors report difficulty finding skilled workers. And, nearly half of the companies surveyed expect hiring is going to get harder over the next year.

Dirk Elsperman, executive vice president and chief operating officer at St. Louis-based Tarlton Corporation, said his company faces the workforce crisis every day.

“The shortages of qualified personnel impact on safety, quality and costs,” he said. “We work to overcome them with innovative ways of executing our projects, but the reality is, it’s tough.”

With a Tarlton job site as a backdrop, Elsperman spoke at a news conference on the Forest Park campus of St. Louis Community College, where a 100,000-square-foot Center for Nursing and Health Sciences was under construction.

If the current building boom continues, more jobs could be created and keep pace with Missouri’s projected construction job growth of 9.8 percent between 2014 and 2024. But industry leaders are concerned about where workers will come from.

Tarlton is working with unions and the Associated General Contractors of Missouri to tackle the shortage.

“This crisis is making it more important that we expand our labor pool by reaching out to underserved demographics and embracing immigration,” Elsperman said.

The Associated General Contractors of Missouri plans to open an industry recruitment facility for the St. Louis region in 2019.

Recruit, educate and retain was also the message from Leonard Toenjes, AGC of Missouri’s president.

“For the last 50 years, people have looked at construction careers as, well, 'if I’m not going to make it in college, certainly, I can just go and get a construction job,'” Toenjes said.

“When, in fact, the cognitive ability that’s needed to work on a construction job is every bit as rigorous or in some cases more rigorous than some of the four-year degree programs.”

Toenjes said the industry needs to work on its image and start to change the way educators, parents and students think about careers in the high-paying field of construction.

Follow Melody on Twitter @melodybird

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