Housing Workforce Crisis Continues to Plague Industry

As the housing market has bounced back over the past few years, the labor shortage has grown into a full-blown crisis. Minnesota’s construction labor force is aging. More skilled workers are retiring and there are not enough skilled workers to take their place.

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development estimates that at least 20,000 new workers will be needed in the construction industry over the next decade. The significant labor shortage at a time of record-low unemployment has made finding new workers difficult.

“We’re extremely frustrated because we don’t see young people stepping up into this industry,” said Kathy Einck, Maplewood Custom Homes, Rochester.

Compounding Factors
When asked about the reasons behind the labor shortage, builders across the state often give the same answers: college-centric education and the 2008 economic downturn. The downturn caused a significant reduction in the jobs in residential construction. On a jobsite today, you’ll see few 28 to 35-year olds. During the downturn, many of the younger workers left the industry and few have returned. With jobs scarce, even fewer high school graduates entered the field from 2008-2010.

“While the overall number of construction-related jobs in our state have returned to pre-crash levels, the number of people employed in home building is still at less than two-thirds of its peak from just over a decade ago,” said David Siegel, executive director of Housing First Minnesota and a board member of Project Build Minnesota.

Builders also point to an education system with a college-only mindset as playing a central role in the labor crisis. Today, high school curriculums and graduation requirements are centered on preparing all students for a four-year college education, creating lower demand on vocational classes. With lower demand, high schools have cut back on vocational training, sometimes eliminating shop classes.

“In the 45 years we’ve been in business, I’ve found it increasingly more difficult to convince young people that a career in the construction trades is a viable option,” said Lowell Pratt of Pratt Homes during a State Senate hearing on construction workforce legislation.

Industry Adapts and Responds
With the labor crisis at peak levels, builders are doing everything they can think of to meet demand, including offering higher wages and increasing overtime. Some companies have turned to recruiters or advertising to attract new workers.

The Central Minnesota Builders Association’s Tools for Schools program donated $18,000 to St. Cloud-area schools. Over 14 years, the organization has donated nearly $100,000 to provide shop supplies and tools to schools across the region.

Housing First Minnesota’s workforce development committee has met with senior Department of Labor & Industry officials, discussing what the department can do to encourage more industry employment.