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February 23, 2023

As Baby Boomers retire, the construction industry ups its focus on recruiting more trades workers

  • Recent inflation has led to higher wages for plumbers, electricians and HVAC techs.
    Special to the Journal

    Photo courtesy of Harts Services [enlarge]
    Harts Services is recruiting electricians and plumbers to handle the labor shortage.

    Although the American economy and the building industry have recovered from the Great Recession that began in 2008, some sectors of the industry are still feeling the effects.

    While construction began a meaningful recovery in 2014, the amount of skilled labor workers didn't bounce back to pre-Great Recession levels, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

    Hiring and productivity shortages among the trades, such as plumbers and electricians, continue to be an issue for the industry.

    Dan Hartsough, co-owner of Harts Services in Seattle and Tacoma, said the skilled trades shortage is an ongoing challenge for his firm.

    Hartsough, whose firm specializes in electrical and plumbing work, said there is a lack of awareness about the availability of low- to no-cost options for training, such as trade school or apprenticeships.

    He added that skilled trades offer long-term job and financial security, which is a fact that men and women in their early 20s might not know.

    Part of the shortage of trade workers can be attributed to what Hartsough said is “the push for college after high school over the last couple of decades and a lack of attention on the trades.”

    As Baby Boomers reach retirement or are already there, in many cases, Hartsough said the labor shortage has worsened.

    “This is not a new problem within the last few years,” he said. “It is just becoming a bigger issue as the older generation of tradespeople retire. We are heavily involved with the plumber, electrical, and HVAC residential job market nationwide. It is a problem everywhere.”

    The college track is not for everyone, Hartsough said, which should boost recruitment in the trades.

    Nevertheless, work needs to be done in the area of recruitment at the high school level, by educating potential recruits about the career opportunities available in the skilled trades.

    According to Skillwork, a skilled trade employment agency, skilled trade classes need to be more readily available in high schools to fill the slots opened by retiring Baby Boomers.

    Hartsough said the pay scale for trade workers is not a factor in drawing new recruits; in fact inflation has meant higher wages.

    “Inflation is just making these jobs pay better,” he said, referring to skilled trades. “It's also pushing the cost of the services to increase. Because we are a capitalistic system, as supply for this type of labor becomes increasingly hard to come by, the cost of labor and consequently the cost of services will continue to rise as long as the demand is there.”

    For Hartsough's part, his firm is working on solving the problem.

    Harts Services has its own plumbing academy where they start 16 to 24 apprentices each year on a three-year program to get their residential plumbing license. It is a paid program, starting at $20 an hour after initial training, and increasing to $65 once participants pass the state test.

    With the arrival of the pandemic in 2020, Hartsough said the shortage of skilled workers was exacerbated. Add the element of historically low unemployment levels in 2023 — below 4% — and the strain on contractors like Harts Services has become more severe.

    “When the pandemic hit, it became more apparent than ever how critical the trades are to our community,” he said. “The local city and state governments were not equipped to help the community with sanitation, hot water, HVAC or electrical emergencies within their homes and homeowners often don't know how to handle these issues themselves. When most other businesses were shut down, we were working overtime to help out our community and keep them comfortable and safe.”

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