Construction industry short on skilled workers

North Dakota State Roundup

Published July 1, 1991  | July 1991 issue

Construction sites throughout North Dakota might post the following: Wanted—skilled cement finishers, heavy equipment operators and skilled carpenters.

These and other skilled construction positions are the hardest to fill, according to a spring survey by Job Service North Dakota. The survey simply confirms a 1990 statistic: Job Service was able to fill only 71 percent of the 3,810 requests from construction firms.

That's good news for trained workers, but bad news for the contractors who can't find enough help.

Mike Deisz, executive director of Job Service North Dakota, has this explanation for the scarcity of workers: In the mid-1980s about 10,000 construction workers were involved in a number of especially large energy- related projects statewide. While many skilled workers moved to other states looking for new work when those projects were completed, those who stayed saw stagnant, and in some cases lower, wages because there was a surplus of skilled workers.

Thus, some of those workers retired and others took jobs in new fields that paid better and didn't keep pace with the changing technology in their skill area, setting the stage for the current shortage.

In one effort to head off a growing problem, about two years ago the Job Service and the state AFL-CIO combined to sponsor a program for dislocated workers that focused on updating skills. The AFL-CIO helped design the training program to ensure that the workers had access to updated technology in their fields.

David Funston, president and executive director of the North Dakota Building and Trades Council, says his organization, which represents state builders, is also attempting to draw more women and minorities into the skilled building trades professions. The council recently sponsored a conference at which trade apprenticeship directors had the opportunity to tout the benefits of learning a construction trade to potential workers.

The issue still ultimately boils down to wages, Funston says. "Nobody is ready yet to pay higher wages in North Dakota." And with wages 15 percent to 25 percent higher in the Twin Cities, for example, Funston adds, it's no wonder skilled workers don't settle in North Dakota.

"During the construction boom in the '80s, you quickly think it will be like that forever," Deisz says. But this is the '90s and North Dakota faces the challenge of meeting employment needs and redeveloping a labor pool of skilled workers.

Kathy Cobb