La. bucks construction worker trend

Ken Naquin, chief executive officer for the Louisiana Associated General Contractors, said while there’s still a need for pipefitters, millwrights and welders, the demand for construction workers has dropped lately in South Louisiana.

That’s because work has either finished or wound down at two $1 billion hospitals in New Orleans: the University Medical Center, which opened in August, and the VA hospital set to open in 2016.

“Those hospitals were built across the street from each other, and at their peak they had 3,000 to 4,000 workers,” Naquin said. The amount of highway work going on statewide also has dropped from where it was five years ago, when miles of Interstate 10 and Interstate 12 were being widened.

Last week, the AGC said the number of construction jobs in New Orleans dropped by 2,700, or 9 percent, during a 12-month period ending on July 31. Only Fort Worth, Texas, lost more construction jobs during that period.

But while the demand for construction workers is going down in parts of South Louisiana, the industry is rebounding nationally. Eighty-nine percent of the companies surveyed by the AGC said they plan to hire additional or replacement hourly craft workers, while 73 percent said they will hire more salaried workers.

At the same time demand is going up, the aging workforce means construction companies have to hire more people to make up for retiring workers.

Naquin notes the average age of a construction worker falls between 55 and 58. That means over the next five to seven years, there will be a “tremendous exodus” of skilled workers from the labor force.

“Bringing more young people into the industry is a top priority,” he said.

That could be a problem. Half of the people who responded to the AGC survey said the local pipeline for training skilled craft workers is “poor” or “below average.”

Connie Fabré, executive director of the Greater Baton Rouge Industry Alliance, an association of plants in the capital region, said local plant expansions and new construction have kept industrial contractors at full employment. That’s made people rely more on new construction workers, who were still trying to get qualifications.

The outlook for construction employment is expected to remain strong. Seventy-eight percent of the AGC survey respondents said it will either continue to remain difficult or get harder to find skilled craft workers in the next year.

That’s why Naquin said it’s important for contractors, unions, trade associations, businesses, public agencies and private companies work together to train construction workers.

“This is a national problem, and we need people with a national point of view to decide how we are going to attract this younger generation to work in the industry,” he said.

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