SPOKANE — A boom in development spurred by Amazon’s fulfillment center on the West Plains and many other construction projects in the works have significantly increased demand for construction workers in the region.
The Spokane region was the third-fastest growing construction job market in the country during the year ending in May, according to an analysis released this week by the Associated General Contractors of America.
The Spokane region added 2,600 jobs from May 2018 to May 2019 — an 18-percent increase — the third-largest percentage gain in construction jobs among metropolitan areas nationwide, according to the report.
Monroe, Michigan, and Auburn-Opelika, Alabama, experienced the largest year-over-year construction job gains at 25 percent and 20 percent, respectively, according to the report.
Construction employment in the Spokane-Spokane Valley area expanded from a post-recession low of 10,100 employees in May 2011 to 17,250 in May 2019, according to data from the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Statewide, construction employment grew from more than 142,000 workers in May 2011 to 231,300 in May 2019. Nationally, more than 249 cities added construction jobs in the past year, according to the AGC.
“It’s really impressive to see so much work underway in the area,” Stephen Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of America, said at a news conference Tuesday at the U.S. Pavilion at Riverfront Park. “But, as demand for construction grows here and in many other parts of the country, more construction firms are having a difficult time finding enough qualified construction workers.”
In addition to the Amazon fulfillment center, ongoing road projects and commercial construction in the Spokane area are outstripping the available supply of construction workers, he said.
Growth is occurring at a time when many older construction workers are reaching retirement age and fewer young adults are opting to pursue careers in construction, said Sandherr, noting 78 percent of contracting firms nationwide reported difficulty with finding qualified workers.
“Workforce shortages have the opportunity to undermine growth, so it’s important to take steps now,” he said. “The sad fact is our country has spent the last four decades dismantling what was once robust vocational educational programs.”
The AGC crafted a national workforce development plan to make it easier to establish construction training programs. It calls for doubling federal funding for career and technical education programs over the next five years and encourages federal officials to evaluate schools based on the number of students that graduate into high-paying jobs, in addition to how many enter college.
AGC’s plan also calls for comprehensive immigration reform that allows skilled construction workers to legally enter the country and a path to legal status for workers already in the United States.
Locally, Inland Northwest AGC is taking steps to recruit new workers.
“Currently, we have a very robust construction market in Spokane with some great projects going on,” said John Madden, general manager of Central Washington Concrete, noting several school districts are expanding and construction of the North Spokane Corridor will be underway in a few years. “The need for skilled workers is critical.”
The construction industry faces a perception problem, he said.
“People see construction as low-skill, low-pay careers, something for those who aren’t going to college or can’t go to college,” he said. “And that’s just not true.”
Madden said crane operators, laborers, truck drivers and carpenters are all high-demand jobs in the region.
Local elected officials, school district leadership and community organizations are seeing the need for a partnership with Inland Northwest AGC to create programs and education for the construction industry, he said.
The Lemon Head program, a work-based learning program created by Inland Northwest AGC, Head Start to the Construction Trades and NEWTECH Skill Center, gives contractors the ability to hire youths to work on construction sites, providing them job skills and experience, Madden said.
Head Start to the Construction Trades, a six-week program that prepares workers for skilled construction trades, had 175 graduates, with most placed into jobs, and NEWTECH, the technical education hub for Spokane Public Schools, offers a welding and construction program and a summer internship, Madden added.
“We need to establish this through the region as well,” he said. “We also need to make sure there’s an awareness of these programs for the kids in this area and there’s access for these opportunities.”