By Dylan Baddour
HOUSTON (AP) — Jaime Ramos worked picking ornamental ferns in Florida until he got ready to start a family. He took a higher-paying construction job, but then found himself frustrated by a transient labor force that learns as it goes.
“There are people who’ve been doing this for years and sometimes they don’t know they’re doing something the wrong way,” he said recently. “Just nobody ever taught them.”
Workers came and went. No one got benefits. There was barely opportunity for advancement. Ramos knew it was no place to build a future.
Then he got a call from a brother-in-law in Houston, who told him about one contractor, Marek Bros., that offered a training program and a real career path. So Ramos moved there and took advantage of Marek’s classes. Six years later, he’s a company foreman with a promising future in management.
Without training from Marek, Ramos said, “I’d be job-hopping like the other friends I have.”
Ramos is both an exception in the modern construction industry and exactly the kind of worker that local employers are struggling to cultivate amid a generations-long downturn in the skill and availability of construction labor.
“I’ve yet to run across anybody who doesn’t agree that the industry has a workforce problem,” said Chuck Gremillion, executive director of the Houston-based Construction Career Collaborative, or C3, which since 2009 has worked with contractors and project owners to improve their employment standards.
While local community colleges help prepare students entering the trades, C3 tries to rally contractors to work with the existing labor pool and make the industry more attractive.
That’s a tall task. C3 faces a complicated problem at the intersection of low wages, dangerous work, poor benefits, the scaling back of vocational courses in public schools and loss of craft training programs once offered by labor unions. Quickly fading are the days of career painters, bricklayers and drywall hangers.
C3 has taken aim at all of these factors, teaching safety protocol, enforcing good employment practices among its accredited contractors and focusing on craft training as part of a long-term solution.
“We’ve seen this decrease in the availability and the skill level of the workforce over many years,” said Katrina Kersch, chief operations officer for the National Center for Construction Education and Research in Alachua, Fla. “The lack of training is why we believe we’re in a workforce shortage.”
The problem is most acute in quickly growing regions with high labor demand, like Wisconsin and Minnesota. Large segments of the construction workforce operate as independent subcontractors drifting from sector to sector without the benefits of full employment, usually learning the craft with no formal training.
Lack of training also harms the bottom line. Research from 2014 from the Construction Industry Institute at the University of Texas found that if 1 percent of project costs were invested in workforce training, productivity rises 11 percent, injuries fall by 26 percent and the amount of work that must be redone falls by 23 percent.
“If there’s a limiting factor in Houston growing, it would be a skilled workforce,” said Jim Stevenson, Houston division president for McCarthy Building Cos., a contractor accredited by C3.
C3, which hired its first three paid staffers in 2014, now is working to bring on a “craft training champion” by month’s end to encourage and foster in-house training programs at contractors across Houston. As Gremillion tells it, the training problem began with the decline in union membership beginning in the 1980s. The unions, he said, traditionally offered craft training.
Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said major employers’ long-standing focus on lowering wages also contributed to the current situation.
C3 shares office space with the local branch of the Associated General Contractors of America, which Lichtenstein said generations ago encouraged the use of non-union labor. The industry, he said, is “complaining about something they helped create.”
But unions aren’t totally dead. Particularly for trades like electricians, HVAC techs or plumbers that require state licenses, union training programs remain robust.
At the Plumbers Local Union 68 in north-central Houston, director of training Robert Cross spreads about three dozen textbooks across a conference room table — the material for the five-year program to become a certified journeyman plumber. Books range from basic safety to math to “Drawing Interpretation and Plan Reading.”
The union has 35 part-time instructors, 16 classrooms and computer labs with projector screens, and six shop areas stocked with pipe cutting and welding stations or mock-ups of hospital gas systems, refrigeration coils, an office tower mechanical closet and a bathroom plumbing system.
Local 68 has roughly 1,900 members, plus about 600 students who spend 246 classroom hours and 600 hours apprenticing for certified plumbers each year for five years. The program is funded through deductions from members’ wages, which are $44.34 per hour under union negotiation.
“These programs take a lot of energy, a lot of effort,” Cross said. “This is the type of school that C3 would like to see their contractors bring back for all their crafts.”