The U.S. is suffering from a shortage of construction labor, and in some important categories in Hawaii, it’s even worse.

Those are the findings of a survey released Wednesday by the Associated General Contractors of America, which for the fourth year asked its members how hard it was to find workers in various categories.

More than two-thirds of U.S. construction firms reported difficulty filling spots for hourly craft positions, which make up the bulk of the workforce. These include bricklayers, carpenters, cement masons, drywall installers, plumbers, roofers, electricians and the like.

HART Rail supports along Kamehameha Hwy as Kiewit workers assemble concrete forms for rail guideway supports. 14 april 2016.
Construction workers assemble concrete forms for rail guideway supports on the Honolulu rail project. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“Many firms have gone from worrying about not having enough work to not having enough workers,” Stephen Sandherr, AGC’s chief executive officer, said Wednesday in a teleconference with reporters.

In Hawaii, this number was even higher – 86 percent. The number is based on responses from only seven Hawaii firms, out of about 1,500 that took part nationally. But these firms employ about 1,000 to 2,000 workers in total, doing hundreds of millions of dollars in annual business.

“Many firms have gone from worrying about not having enough work to not having enough workers.” –Stephen Sandherr, AGC’s chief executive officer

Among other things, the labor shortage can drive up construction costs by slowing down work and prompting some firms to refrain from bidding.

Earlier this month, Civil Beat explored some of the reasons for Honolulu’s construction costs, which in early 2015 surpassed New York City’s as the highest in the nation. Among the top causes cited by industry insiders was not having enough qualified workers. That can mean that workers are less efficient. Or contractors who are worried about short-staffing might not bid on a job, reducing competition and driving up costs.

Hawaii Firms’ Gloomier Outlook

In the survey released Wednesday, Hawaii firms also were more pessimistic about the climate improving over the next year. While 54 percent of U.S. firms said it will continue to be hard to hire hourly craft workers, six of the seven Hawaii firms did.

And those Hawaii companies reported a higher rate of having their hourly craft workers poached by other construction firms in the area – 57 percent, compared to one-third of U.S. companies overall.

When it comes to salaried positions, Hawaii firms reported having a harder time than their U.S. counterparts finding project managers and supervisors.

Contractors nationwide take a dim view of the pipeline that trains craft workers. Two-thirds rated the training as “poor” or “fair.” But in Hawaii, all seven firms gave workforce training one of these two dismal ratings.

Over the next year, the Hawaii firms plan to hire workers for expansion or to fill vacant spots, much like their U.S. counterparts. In fact, all of them plan to bring on more hourly craft workers, compared to 83 percent of contractors nationally.

Surprisingly, though, the Hawaii firms were less likely to be considering wage and benefit increases to retain hourly and salaried personnel. Twenty-nine percent said they were not contemplating such a move for hourly craft workers, compared to about 15 percent nationally.

Hawaii’s union-friendly environment also showed in the survey, with five of the seven companies saying they always operate as a union contractor versus only a quarter of U.S. firms that do.

AGC says that the number of construction jobs increased in 239 of 358 metro areas in the past year. Honolulu’s construction workforce jumped by 16 percent, tied for the fifth-highest in the nation.

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