WILMINGTON—Houses, apartments and developments seem to be sprouting on Wilmington’s soil every day. Though it may appear the construction industry is on fire, builders are struggling to pull from a skilled labor pool.
“We’re struggling to get people to the job sites, just to show up,” Jim Morton, president of Cape Fear Community College, said. “If they have a driver’s license, it’s a bonus.”
A cocktail of social changes have contributed to the shallow labor pool: an aging construction workforce, fewer available immigrants and an education system that has shifted away from teaching vocational skills.
“We are at the point where … in terms of economics, demographics, a lot of boomers leaving the industry, and this lack of a pipeline, we’ve got these chronic workforce shortages,” Brian Turmail, spokesperson for the Associated General Contractors of America, said.
With national policy steering further from being immigrant-friendly, the construction industry in the Cape Fear region has introduced its solution to fill this void: train local high school graduates hands-on construction skills during a two-week course.
For $185, high school seniors will become eligible to enroll in a two-week course to learn the basics of masonry, plumbing, carpentry or heating, ventilation and air conditioning through CFCC’s Construction Institutes this summer.
Dave Spetrino, the president of Wilmington-Cape Fear Home Builders Association, said the demand for new housing exceeds the available construction workforce.
“It’s a shame that I am not able to recruit locally,” Spetrino said. “I should be able to pool locally.”
Through his company PBC Design + Build, an acronym for Plantation Building Corp., Spetrino has been forced to re-calibrate after losing much of his immigrant labor.
“I relied heavily on my immigrant and my Latino workforce,” Spetrino said. “I don’t have that anymore.”
CFCC’s program, with its business partnerships with construction leaders like Spetrino, promises guaranteed interviews for students who make it through the two-week course.
A spokesperson for CFCC, Rachel Nadeau, said that while the program is targeted toward high school seniors, anyone is welcome to enroll.
“High school seniors were identified as one of the potential target audiences for the Construction Institute, as they are with many of our programs, because of the many employment opportunities within the construction field,” Nadeau wrote in an email. “The Construction Institute courses are open to any individual who is interested in pursuing employment in the construction industry.”
Coldwell Banker Sea Coast Advantage donated $5,000 toward a memorial scholarship fund for the new program, in honor of the late Ted Hardeen, a leader in new-home construction.
If the program produces an eligible, native workforce, CFCC and its co-sponsors said the local construction industry can recover from its recent loss of immigrant labor.
In January, the Trump Administration announced it would not extend Temporary Protected Status for nearly 200,000 Salvadoran immigrants. Spetrino points to the shifting political climate, as well as evolving American cultural values, as creating the labor shortage.
“Miguel says ‘listen, Jose, you guys are going to have to make America great again without me,'” Spetrino said. “‘I cant come up there anymore,’ and that’s a real problem.”
With immigrant workers less available, Spetrino has been unhappy with his remaining options.
“My roofers and my framers, all white guys,” he said. “The running joke is and again, this isn’t a political statement, the running joke is we are petrified of white-guy framers now — they will cost us money, drag out the job and they may or may not be able to finish.”
A survey conducted by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGCA) brought attention to this mismatch in the construction industry. Though 75 percent of firms surveyed planned to expand their workforce, 78 percent revealed they had a difficult time filling positions.
AGCA’s chief economist, Ken Simonson, said his organization did not have data on the dwindling immigrant labor force. Though he said the loss is agreed upon anecdotally in the industry, it’s tough to quantify.
“I hear again, the anecdote that they’re willing to do work that others aren’t,” Simonson said. “That’s why they made the difficult trip to get there.”
Turmail said the community college’s move to introduce a construction-specific program is on par with the nation’s slow effort to fill a decades-old drought.
“It tries to fill the void that was left when we disassembled what was once a robust vocational education system in this country,” Brian Turmail said. “Its a quick fix to the lack of career and technical programs that a lot of high schools have.”
CFCC’s Construction Institutes will run concurrently June 18 through June 29.
“It took 30 years for us to devalue craft professions like construction,” Turmail said. “It’s going to take a few years to try to put that value back in.”
For more information the Construction Institute, visit http://cfcc.edu/constructioninstitute/.
Johanna Ferebee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @j__ferebee on Twitter