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Skilled to Work: Huntsville, state construction firms have trouble finding employees

The Alabama Department of Commerce notes that the rate people are leaving the workforce is far greater on average than those entering it.

Posted: Jan 9, 2019 9:38 AM
Updated: Jan 11, 2019 7:42 AM

A new year brings with it familiar problems for Jay Stutts. The owner of residential electrician company Mister Sparky in Huntsville, like many others in his field, faces a hiring challenge that only gets more troubling over time.

While sitting in his office on Friday, Stutts called the aging out of the workforce “a crisis.”

Top 10 Jobs (by demand) in north Alabama requiring an associates degree, post-secondary certificate, or some college (no degree)*

Occupation Average annual total openings (2016-2026) Average Salary 2017
Registered Nurses 655 $53,659
Welders, Cutters, Solderers & Brazers 535 $36,770
Industrial Machinery Mechanics 320 $50,725
Machinists 305 $44,166
Electrical & Electronics Engineering Technicians 145 $63,035
Computer User Support Specialists 145 $46,048
Medical Secretaries 145 $31,279
HVAC Mechanics & Installers 140 $39,715
Physitcal Therapist Assistants 80 $57,243
Industrial Engineering Technicians 40 $53,545

*Figures provided by the Alabama Department of Labor

In recent survey of construction firms in Alabama, 74 percent of them said they In recent survey of construction firms in Alabama, 74 percent of them said they "are having a hard time filling some or all (salaried and hourly craft) positions."

“It would be one or two generations before we get back to a strong trade level, unless we just have a mass exodus from the white-collar world to the blue-collar world,” said Stutts.

The trend can be seen across the various trades that encompass the field of construction. Skilled workers retire at a rate that significantly outpaces the influx of new talent.

According to the Alabama Department of Commerce, the average age of a construction worker is 47-years-old and only one new person is added on average through apprenticeship programs for every four that leave the workforce.

The ADOC also notes that only 10.4 percent of Alabama’s construction workforce is female.

Just over a week ago, the Associated General Contractors of America (AGCA) released a study that questioned just how tough a time construction firms were having bringing on new workers.

Of those surveyed in Alabama, 74 percent said they are having a difficult time filling some or all positions. In response to a separate question, 73 percent of the construction firms said it will either continue to be hard or become harder to hire craft or salaried personnel in 2019.

“We have this huge void of people aging out of the workforce and then just not having the younger people coming up through the trades to replace them,” said Tiffany Brightwell, the president of the north Alabama chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors Inc.

Brightwell said she doesn’t believe the difficulty in filling these jobs comes from a lack of interest, but rather a lack of knowledge.

“We as parents, as educators, as a society have really done a disservice to students. We’ve told them that the only way they can be successful is to earn a four-year college degree and that’s just simply not true anymore,” said Brightwell.

According to the Alabama Construction Recruitment Institute (ACRI), about 39 percent of students who graduate with a loan to pay off need at least a decade to do so.

The latest data from the Institute for College Access and Success shows that for the class of 2017, Alabama had the eighth highest average debt at $31,899.

Another frightening stat: about half the students in Alabama graduate with debt. That puts the Yellowhammer State in a three-way tie at 40th with California and Florida.

And the problem goes beyond construction. In just north Alabama, there are hundreds of job openings each year in skilled jobs like for registered nurses, computer user support specialists, physical therapist assistants and heating/air conditioning mechanics, just to name a few of the top ten.

Meanwhile, Stutts hopes people will start to take a closer look at skilled work, beyond the stigma, and see that they can offer good salaries and a skillset that can build into a solid career.

“You can start with nothing and five, 10, 15 years later you can have your business. That’s pretty encouraging,” Stutts said.

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