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Talented bench waits for willing contractors

VJS Construction Services Inc., Pewaukee, is putting people to work by building an addition to Badger Middle School for the West Bend School District. (Photo courtesy of VJS Construction Services Inc.)

VJS Construction Services Inc., Pewaukee, is putting people to work by building an addition to Badger Middle School for the West Bend School District. (Photo courtesy of VJS Construction Services Inc.)

By Sean Ryan

VJS Construction Services Inc. has a 4-inch-thick stack of resumes reflecting the bright side of an industry report that one in four builders is out of work.

West Bend/School Addition-Renovations

West Bend/School Facilities Plan

And the Pewaukee-based builder is taking advantage of the opportunity, hiring about 25 new employees for the start of a few large private projects.

The difficult job market means contractors that are willing to hire can pick and choose from a pool of well-experienced workers, said Craig Jorgensen, VJS president.

“The majority of people come via referrals,” he said. “Somebody knows somebody else or has worked with this guy or this gal.”

If the Associated General Contractors of America’s data are correct, it is a good time to know somebody who knows a contractor looking for workers.

The association reported 53,000 U.S. construction workers lost their jobs in December, leading to a nationwide unemployment rate of 22.7 percent in the industry.

The high number of layoffs is accompanied by a low number of new hires and a tough outlook in 2010, said Ken Simonson, AGC chief economist.

“I don’t see any evidence that the nonresidential side of construction is picking up the pace of hiring,” he said. “It’s still very much in a deep freeze.”

Jorgensen said his company is unique in the Milwaukee area because VJS is hiring. The company hit a low point in late summer with 52 fieldworkers and 40 people in the office. But VJS ramped up its work force to 75 in the field and 44 in the office, thanks primarily to the start of an expansion of the St. John’s on the Lake senior-living high-rise in Milwaukee and $27.4 million in projects for the West Bend School District.

“We actually have some projects where financing has come through, and that’s probably the biggest deal,” Jorgensen said. “We’ve had these projects on the back burner for a couple of years.”

Some of the new hires were on VJS crews before the company cut back its work force about four months ago, Jorgensen said.

Some workers are on loan from other companies, he said. The contractor swaps its most experienced crew members with other builders in the area, he said, so if VJS is slow on work but other builders are busy, VJS lends out its workers. But lately, Jorgensen said, other builders are sending their most experienced workers to VJS.

It’s important to keep skilled workers within the industry so they do not search for other jobs, Simonson said. The nonresidential, private industry likely won’t pick up until 2011, at best, but he said unemployed people need to persevere.

“I know when the demand comes back,” Simonson said, “we’ll need every one of those workers.”

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