Shortage of skilled laborers affecting Chicago area construction projects

CHICAGO — The summer remodeling and construction season is in full swing, but there's a problem. The lack plumbers, electricians, carpenters and other skilled laborers is putting a pinch on projects in Chicago — and beyond.

"Frankly, there aren't enough people doing this right now," David Van Osdol with Macpherson Builders said.

Van Osdol has been in the construction business for nearly 20 years. He said staying busy is great, but there's an unusually high level of frustration that comes with the lack of specially trained workers.

"I'm not a spring chicken, but I'm one of the few guys doing this, it seems," he said.

Sonia Esler's north suburban house has been under construction since last August.

"There have been times when he's had to explain to me that there aren't enough people to work on this project, which is very sad for us," Esler said.

"It's hard to say no, obviously, but at the same time, people always want things done at a certain time," Van Osdol said. "I've had some clients, they've come back and say they want to do this amount of work. It's like ok, that's great, as long as you can hang on and not in a big hurry, we'll do it."

The number of construction jobs increased by 21,000 in June and by more than 3% over the last 12 months, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the skilled labor shortage is creating major challenges to the construction industry.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Commercial Construction Index finds firms are asking skilled workers to do 81% more work; 70% of firms are struggling to meet deadlines; and 63% of firms are increasing costs for new work. Van Osdol said he noticed the number of skilled laborers dwindling four or five years ago, and it has slowed the pace of projects. But employment experts say the trend goes back even farther.

"I would say the college boom really started probably in the mid-2000s; however, coming out of the recession, over the past nine years from 2010, it's very much so been you need a college degree in order to survive if there's ever another downturn," said Tom Gimbel, founder and CEO of the LaSalle Network, one of the top staffing and recruiting firms in the country.

Gimbel contends the combination of wear and tear on the body as a tradesperson, along with concerns about health insurance and weakening unions, are factors that may not get discussed often but certainly play roles in attracting people to careers in construction.

"They make a lot of money out of the gate. So the difference is in your first five to seven years, you may be outpacing someone with a liberal arts degree; however, it gets to a point that it caps." Gimbel said. "Unless you move into management — more money once you hit 28, 30 and on, and there's more opportunities for promotion and advancement."

Chicago Public Schools recently teamed up with the Department of Buildings to offer a construction training program for high school juniors and seniors. Students who take part will learn carpentry, electricity, welding and general construction. It will include paid work experiences and high school credit.

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