Local News

Construction labor shortages haven't reached Highlands yet

SEBRING- When Florida's economy went south during the recession and the housing market collapsed, several older workers in the construction field retired.

Others migrated to states where there were jobs, like in the fracking industry in Pennsylvania, said Jim Aul with Montz Builders Inc. in Lake Placid.

Now, as new construction picks up in the state, a majority of construction companies are concerned about a shortage of workers, a national survey shows, although many local firms said they are not yet feeling the pressure.

"We are not yet caught up to the rest of Florida yet," Mark Gose, with Gose Construction, said. "There is usually a lag of 12 to 18 months."

Forty percent of Florida construction companies trade group, Associated General Contractors of America, surveyed said they are having difficulty filling some craft workers' positions but not professional openings. Carpenters topped the list, followed by laborers and cement masons.

Sixty-percent also said they expect it harder to find "qualified" people within the next 12 months.

Josh Stewart, co-owner of Stewart Construction, said there is a general shortage of some skilled laborers like carpenters, dry wall finishers and tile installers.

Because of demand and supply, workers' wages that were cut during the recession as jobs shriveled up, are back again to pre-recession levels, he said.

The shortage may also mean some delay between new jobs, although Bill Brantley, owner of Brantley Construction, said they have remained with the same sub-contractors they worked with before the recession and so haven't faced any labor shortages.

"If you are loyal to your sub-contractors, they are loyal to you," he said.

What has changed for Brantley, though, is the time it now takes to order materials.

Earlier, wholesale suppliers would stock their warehouses with supplies, he explained. Because of reduced demand and to lower overhead costs, materials have to be first ordered and custom-made, sometimes adding a lag time of three to four weeks for items to arrive, he said.

Ninety percent of construction firms surveyed in the report said they expect prices for key construction materials to increase this year.

"Most, however, expect those increases will be relatively modest, with 43 percent reporting they expect the increases to range between 1 and 5 percent. Meanwhile, 82 percent of firms report they expect the cost of providing health care insurance for their employees will increase in 2014," the report adds.

While the local construction business is not yet up to steam as some other places in South Florida, Gose expects 2014 to be the best of the last six years.

He is hoping local demand grows but to stay viable many companies like his have been going where the jobs are, which in his case is from I-10 to Key West.

Also thinking "outside the box" is Cool and Cobb Engineering Co., whose biggest customer is in Jacksonville, said co-owner Carl Cool. They have licenses to do business in Florida and Georgia and recently added South Carolina to their repertoire.

Cool and Cobb does the designs for helical foundations in one day, if needed, and Cool thinks it's their quick turnaround time that gives them an edge.

"You have to think outside the box and find other opportunities," he said.