EUGENE, Ore. — With the economy humming and unemployment rates at modern-day lows, the labor shortage has long made it tough for certain industries to find employees.
Construction and manufacturing firms have been hit particularly hard by the labor shortage, partly because many of their older employees are retiring.
But some Lane County firms are doing more than complaining about the tight labor market. Some are spending money to attract and retain workers through increased wages, hiring bonuses and expanded benefits.
“It’s a good time to be a hard worker and a smart worker, because you will make good money,” said Shaun Hyland, president of John Hyland Construction in Springfield.
Other firms have started new training programs to get younger people on their payroll, which helps fill immediate job openings and gives companies potential future leaders.
On Jan. 1, Chambers Construction began paying 100 percent of the cost of medical insurance for employees and their family members.
Previously, Eugene-based Chambers covered the cost of employees’ medical insurance, but workers had to pay a portion of the cost for relatives.
Chambers President Dave Bakke said the company took on the extra cost to help it retain and attract “qualified people.”
“It’s a hard living for our guys, working out there in the field, out in the trenches,” he said. “And they really appreciate that type of gesture.”
Essex General Construction of Eugene boosted carpenter wages 8 percent between 2016 and 2017, said Jodi Sommers, marketing and business development manager. Benefit costs rose 5 percent, mainly through the addition of sick pay, she said.
Some firms have started new recruiting initiatives and training programs to attract younger workers.
Construction firms have long relied on labor union and construction industry sponsored apprenticeship programs to train carpenters, plumbers and electricians.
But Chambers Construction last year started its own paid apprenticeship program to train carpenters.
And Consolidated Supply, a Tigard-based plumbing supply wholesaler with an outlet in Eugene, has begun a sales and management training program for employees.
“We recognize a need to increase our bench within our company in which we can fill leadership and sales positions as they become available,” said Wayne Upchurch, Consolidated’s training and development coordinator.
By paying people to learn jobs, training programs can cost a company in the short term. However, managers consider the expenditures necessary to ensure the company has enough employees for the future.
Chambers and other construction firms have relied on other apprenticeship programs to train carpenters, but those programs can take four or more years to produce journeyman carpenters, said Mark Harrington, recruiter/skills trainer for Chambers.
“We shortened the time,” to three years, he said. “We are trying to fill the hole faster.”
Bakke, Chambers’ president, said the apprenticeship provides high school graduates an entry to a good-paying career.
“Not all kids will want to go to college,” he said. “This is an avenue for them to get into the construction industry.”
At Consolidated Supply in Eugene, Ben Ullrich is the firm’s management trainee.
He started at Consolidated in late 2016 as a warehouse worker, retrieving items for plumbers and other customers.
Ullrich, a 23-year-old University of Oregon graduate, was accepted in the firm’s training program and is now working in inside sales. In that job, he manages job accounts for customers, making sure they receive plumbing materials and equipment on time and according to specifications.
“I honestly just thrive on the day-to-day interactions that I have with my customers,” Ullrich said. “I love to hear about their jobs, and what they’re working on. I enjoy learning about what they do and how they do it. I appreciate the time that they take out of their days to teach me something when I don’t know about a specific product or how it’s used.”
Consolidated has a seven-part training program that teaches employees inventory management, how to interact with customers face-to-face and over the phone and how to provide estimates. Trainees also will learn about the company’s safety rules, financial plans and budgets, and how to lead and motivate employees.
When he completes the training program next year, Ullrich said he expects to have a full-time position as either an assistant branch manager or an inside salesman.
Consolidated has 17 locations in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
Ullrich’s eventual role “upon completion of the program will ultimately depend on the company’s need and where his particular passions lie,” Upchurch said. “One of the requirements for sales and management trainees is flexibility, including being willing to relocate if necessary.”
AN AGING WORKFORCE
Harrington, 54, was the inspiration for the Chambers’ apprenticeship program.
While working last year as a carpenter and foreman at Yogi Tea’s new headquarters and plant, Harrington noticed something about Chambers’ employees on the job site. “We had 14 guys out there and only one was under 30 years old,” he said. “We did the math and the average age of (the people on the job) was 54.”
He became concerned when he realized that half of Chambers’ job superintendents and a third of its carpenters would reach retirement age in the next 10 years.
Harrington shared his observations with a Chambers owner, which led the firm to start the apprenticeship program last April.
Besides the impending retirements, “We were having major issues with guys not completing (other apprenticeship programs) in four years,” he said. “They were ending up five or six years down the road before they completed. And we weren’t getting the quality results we were hoping for.”
“We wanted to produce more employees who are better trained and ready to go to work,” he added.
To generate interest in Chambers’ apprenticeship program, Harrington visits high schools in Lane County.
Today, Chambers is training six people to become carpenters, ranging in age from 17 to 56. The youngest, or most inexperienced, start as laborers, the entry level position in the construction industry.
High school students and others with little or no construction experience are paid $11 an hour when they first begin working in the training program.
If, after 60 days of training, apprenticeship applicants show promise and prove they are reliable, they are accepted in the program and get a $1 an hour pay raise. Pay raises get larger if trainees advance, Harrington said.
Upon completing the program, trainees can become journeyman carpenters, who are typically paid more than $20 an hour by Chambers.
With more experience, journeyman carpenters can go on to other jobs, including foreman and job supervisors in the construction industry, Harrington said. “A person can go as far as they want, if they have the drive and talent,” he said.
During their apprenticeship, trainees work a total of 6,000 hours in the field over three years. A mentor carpenter works with the trainees who also attend a-once-a-month class on Saturdays, typically at Chambers’ shop on Judkins Road near Interstate 5 and Franklin Boulevard.
Trainees also get two to four hours of homework a month.
Brayden Dugger, a senior at Marcola High School, is working one day a week as a laborer for Chambers. Lately, he’s been on a crew constructing a loading dock out of concrete at Apel Extrusions, an aluminum manufacturer in the Coburg North industrial park.
Dugger, 18, said the work, including tying rebar together and building concrete forms, requires him to accomplish many of the same tasks that he was learning about in class.
“You are not just learning one thing,” he said. “You are learning about multiple areas in the construction trade.”
Dugger said he had previously thought that he would work in construction after graduating from high school in June. However, he applied for Chambers’ apprenticeship program after Harrington visited his school and made a pitch to students.
“I plan on sticking with Chambers and working with them,” Dugger said.
Izayah Moriguchi, a 22-year-old apprentice carpenter, had worked for another local construction firm before joining Chambers’ training program.
Becoming a journeyman carpenter will be a start to a construction career, he said.
Once he’s achieved journeyman status, “I will probably talk to Chambers and see if I can take construction management classes,” most likely at Lane Community College, he said.
Harrington said trainees must have received their high school diploma or GED high school equivalency certificate to get a journeyman carpenter’s card.
“We are not going to stand in the way of somebody getting an education,” he said. “We’re here to take them to the next level.”
Harrington said some may consider construction work undesirable, but the industry can provide a satisfying, well-paying career to a “whole bunch of good, solid people out there who are just kind of floating around not knowing how to get where they want to go.”
“If you can’t or won’t go to college, you don’t have to consider yourself a second-class citizen,” Harrington said.
“You can make a very good livable wage, have a career path and move on with your life.”
Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com