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After more than five years in the U.S. Air Force, Donnovan Ledford in May decided to go to college “to learn something new.”
He didn’t know exactly what he wanted, just that he wanted a career where he could work hard and earn a decent living. Then he saw that Spartanburg Community College had openings for HVAC classes, and that workers in that field were in demand.
“It just kind of dawned on me,” said Ledford, 24. “I like to work. And it’s a good industry. There’s a lot of money in it. We’re in the South and people need air conditioners.”
Today, Ledford is enrolled in a one-year certificate program. He plans to find work with a heating and air conditioning installer, or as a service technician, when he’s finished that in July. Down the road, he might open his own business.
According to the Associated General Contractors of America, average private sector hourly earnings in the construction industry climbed to $29.19 in September — a 3 percent increase over September 2016.
Yet construction firms continued to report a hard time finding qualified trade and crafts workers to hire — carpenters, plumbers, electricians, HVAC installers, roofers, bricklayers, pipefitters, cement masons and sheet metal installers.
A recent survey of 1,600 construction firms found that 70 percent are having a hard time finding hourly trade or craft workers. Many said they’ve even increased pay rates and benefits and offered incentives and bonuses to attract workers.
Builders feel pinch
Spartanburg-area home builders say the shortage of skilled labor has been felt since the recession of 2008-09, when a housing slowdown forced many people to change careers.
Plus, a pool of younger trades workers has not been sufficient to replace those who have retired, according to longtime home builder Manning Lynch.
That, combined with a hot real estate market that began well over a year ago, is a problem, he said.
“We’re still not building the houses that need to be built to meet the demand,” Lynch said. “This is going to get worse rather than better.”
Colleges and technical schools have stepped up recruitment efforts and are getting out the word that learning a trade can provide just as lucrative and rewarding a career as a traditional four-year degree can bring — without as much debt.
“Years and years we have pushed through the high school system that people needed a college degree, and we’re suffering from it now,” said Leigh Faircloth, executive director of the S.C. Association of Heating and Air Conditioning Contractors.
Faircloth said statewide there is a shortage of 10,000 HVAC workers, including installers and service technicians.
Supply and demand
Recently, the Spartanburg Association of Realtors announced that a sizzling summer housing market is expected through this fall, as more people are competing for $200,000 homes and condos than there are houses available. Sales of those homes increased 32.1 percent in August over August 2016.
For the past year, the statewide association has noted a low inventory of homes on the market for sale, particularly single-family homes and condos in the $100,000 to $150,000 range.
Lynch said area home builders can meet some of the demand, but without more skilled workers they can’t keep the pace expected by local Realtors.
“We just don’t have the workforce we once had,” Lynch said.
Shortages ‘across the board’
Spartanburg home builder Parker Champion is building single-family homes in a subdivision called Lancaster Farms on John Lancaster Road in Roebuck.
He said it can take weeks, even months to get framers, roofers and bricklayers to arrive at a job site. There simply aren’t enough crews to go around, he said.
“The shortage is across the board,” Champion said. “A three-month starter house now takes five months to build. Where you might have to wait a couple of days, it now takes a week or two for a (subcontractor) to show up.”
Stan Beckley chairs a task force in the Columbia area on construction workforce development. At a recent visit to the Upstate, he told builders that much is being done to attract high school graduates into training for trades.
In fact, many college-educated adults in unfulfilling fields are now turning to technical schools to learn trades, he said.
Beckley said a longtime stagnant economy has finally picked up, but at a pace too fast for builders to keep up with the demand in Charleston, Greenville-Spartanburg and Myrtle Beach.
“The labor supply continues to be a large concern,” he said.
The greatest shortages are in carpenters, framers, brick masons, electricians and roofers, he said.
S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster declared October as Careers in Construction Month. Alongside that, 54 high school students in the Midlands participated in job shadowing with construction firms and at construction sites.
“The goal is for students to view construction occupations as potential career paths,” Beckley said. “Career fairs and job fairs are other options for recruiting for construction jobs.”
Spartanburg Community College offers several courses on trades, according to Nannett Bongouvi, director of corporate training and career development.
The problem is, not enough students are signing up.
“Our numbers are down,” said HVAC program coordinator John Mathis, himself a former builder.
“It’s an odd field to get into,” he said of heating and and conditioning installation. “I’ve asked middle school students, do you dream of growing up and being an HVAC person? The answer is no.”
He said nowadays many students who pursue traditional four-year college degrees end up disappointed with their options, plus saddled with debt that takes years to pay off.
High schools could do more to point students toward trades, he said.
Bongouvi said SCC offers standard construction education and research curriculum that teaches basic skills for construction and trades.
That program is a prerequisite for courses that zero in on specific trades, and provide introduction to construction math, hand tools, power tools, construction drawings, communication skills and materials handling.
“It’s an 80-hour course,” she said. “Then they are entered into the national registry and receive a wallet card. They can then select a trade — carpentry or any of the trades.”
She said SCC has begun working with the Northside Initiative in Spartanburg, where students get hands-on training. Some end up getting offered full-time work with contractors.
“Our hope is to have another core curriculum program class,” she said. “The intent is to provide a pipeline of qualified and skilled graduates of this program.”
The college has also worked with the Spartanburg County Detention Center, providing skills that non-violent offenders can take with them upon their release.
Getting the word out
Beckley said home builders are supporting a new initiative to fund a tractor-trailer outfitted with displays about the job market for trades, which would visit middle and high schools throughout the state.
“The goal would be to touch 50,000 students per year,” he said. “It could be a true game-changer for communicating to students and parents the opportunities for income and employment without the debt associated with a four-year degree.”
Faircloth, whose HVAC organization represents 200 companies statewide, said there is no “silver bullet” to solving a lack of trade workers.
“There are a lot of people who want to fix it, but it’s like an elephant in the room,” she said. “We are all trying to take bites.”