Shortage of construction workers in Nevada County reaching critical levels | SierraSun.com

Shortage of construction workers in Nevada County reaching critical levels

Lorraine Jewett
Special to the Sun

Barbara Bashall, Executive Director of the Nevada County Contractors' Association, describes the local skilled labor shortage: "It's terrible. It's really critical right now.

"Companies are screaming for employees," Bashall said. "There aren't enough young people that want to work in construction. There's a lot of construction, but there's a huge lack of labor."

Keoni Allen, President of Sierra Foothills Construction Company and a board member of the nonprofit Nevada County Contractors' Association, concurred.

"It's an enormous problem," Allen said. "It's affecting every trade in the industry. A lack of labor slows down the process and drives up the cost."

Bashall said people with no experience can still start at $15-$20 an hour.

"I call them 'The Lost Kids' because no one has directed today's youth into construction," Bashall said. "It's all technology these days because construction is blue collar and parents want their kids to go to college. But construction could be a life-changer, especially for kids who end up in alternative schools."

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Allen agreed, saying many times workers can out-earn white-collar jobs.

"A journeyman electrician earns $100,000 a year," Allen said. "If you measure that against going to a four-year university and coming out with thousands of dollars in student loans, it's a pretty big swing."

Another advantage of a career in the construction industry is the opportunity to receive job training — free.

"Smart, motivated young people can always get themselves on-the-job training," Allen said. "You can get someone to hire you and teach you. The labor shortage problem is that severe."

The first step for newbies wanting a foot in the construction door is to contact the Nevada County Contractors' Association, said Bashall.

"Most of our small businesses are seeking new employees," she said.

The association has taken proactive steps to try to fill the labor void. It's working with Express Employment Professionals, a temporary hiring agency, which rents office space at the association. The partnership started about seven months ago.

"We step in and help contractors, who are looking for additional employees," said Tayler Schohr, a skilled trades recruiter at Express Employment. "We take care of the full recruiting service, including job posting, interviewing candidates, reference checks, drug testing, and criminal background checks."

Schohr said contractors' appreciation is commensurate with their desperation.

"One of the contractors was saying how bad the labor shortage is in Grass Valley," Schohr said. "It's so tight, Express is recruiting 24/7, and he said having that pool of candidates has been a godsend."

Getting young people interested in the trades and exposing them to options is one of the tasks of the local high school district and community college.

Stephanie Ortiz, Dean of the Sierra College-Nevada County Campus, said she attended a meeting two weeks ago at which contractors and educators discussed the local labor shortage and possible solutions.

"I am committed to meeting the needs of Nevada County contractors and am working collaboratively with the main Sierra College campus to bring construction classes to Western Nevada County," Ortiz said. "I'm also working in partnership with the Nevada Joint Union High School District."

Oritz said several challenges must be met, including procuring the necessary equipment and securing the appropriate facility in which to provide instruction for classes, such as Computer Numerical Controlled Woodworking.

"That's not a 'chalk and talk' type of class," Ortiz said.

Another issue is recruiting the right faculty with at least the minimum qualifications.

"Ideally, the teacher will be a general contractor," said Ortiz, acknowledging that teaching pays less than a contractor earns. "You've really got to have a heart for it."

Local high schools have long offered programs, such as construction, auto shop, woodworking, agricultural mechanics, and similar vocational lineups. Formerly known as the 49er Regional Occupational Program, many vocational classes are now operated under the auspices of the high school district's Career Technical Education program.

"We've expended a lot of effort over the last year and established a CTE Advisory Committee to get input from the community about what the local needs are," said Dan Frisella, Director of Educational and Pupil Services at the Nevada Joint Union High School District. "We're going to do everything we can to respond to those needs."

Last year, the district secured a three-year, $600,000 Career Technical Education incentive grant from the state to launch new programs and invigorate existing ones.

Frisella said ag mechanic classes are always full, but woodworking has lost momentum in recent years. Some programs are only offered at one of the high schools, and Frisella said the district is looking at ways to address that.

"We are talking about aligning schedules because our end goal is to ensure any student can access any of our programs on any of our campuses," Frisella said. "We can do that if the high schools had the same bell schedule."

A different option might see each high school focusing on a specific set of classes.

"Perhaps Nevada Union becomes the construction school, and Bear River is the auto school," he said. "We're trying to be more efficient with resources, and dividing up programs like that might work. That's not the exact plan, but we're exploring opportunities."

According to those in the middle of the crisis, the eventual solution to the labor shortage must include a shift in attitude: how to make manual labor, especially in inclement weather, alluring beyond good pay?

"The problem is kids don't want to get into the trades anymore," said Steve Piziali, owner of Piziali Construction of Grass Valley for 27 years. "The trades are looked down upon now, but 25 years ago it was prestigious to get into the trades."

Allen is afraid the trend will continue in the wrong direction.

"The worst part is it appears to be an ongoing problem for the foreseeable future," Allen said. "There are not enough young people coming in to replace the people who have retired or left the industry. There's not a darn thing that happens in the world without construction. Every other industry needs us."

Piziali agreed.

"Either young people don't want to work, or they're growing and trimming (marijuana) or collecting welfare," Piziali said. "I have guys making $35 an hour, plus benefits. There's money to be made if you're willing to work."

Lorraine Jewett is a freelance writer, who lives in Nevada County. To suggest a business news feature, contact her at LorraineJewettWrites@gmail.com.

BUSINESS BASICS

Nevada County Contractors’ Association

Barbara Bashall, Executive Director

Phone: 530-274-1919

149 Crown Point Court, Grass Valley