Amid boom, construction industry laments shortage of workers
It's almost noon on a warm July day in Scappoose, and Jackson Vargas and his small crew are one of several on a job site off Old Portland Road.
Rows of new home lots sit vacant, some have been framed in, some with nothing more than a utility meter at the plot, but the lots won't be empty for very long.
Vargas is a plumber working on the South Fork subdivision, a D. R. Horton tract housing project with nearly 90 units planned.
Scappoose has seen a substantial increase in new home construction over the past four years, with most homes clustered on the south side of the city, just up the road from the staple grocer, Fred Meyer.
The construction has accounted for much of the county's job increases.
In Columbia County, construction jobs jumped by nearly 11 percent over the past year, with an estimated 60 jobs added from May 2016 to May 2017, according to data from the Oregon Employment Department. In all, private sector construction jobs in the county accounted for about 5 percent of the county's total workforce, at 533 people in 2016 says Shawna Sykes, a workforce analyst and economist with the state's Employment Department.
The post Great Recession recovery seems like good news for a county that scrambles to add jobs. Industry insiders, however, say the construction industry should be boasting even higher numbers, except there are more available jobs than it can fill.
"In 2008, I was in the apprenticeship program and the class emptied out because there was no work," Vargas recalls. "We went from 20 people to five."
Vargas got lucky. He was able to stick with the program because he was paired with a journeyman who had enough service work to keep him busy, but that wasn't the case for most.
"A lot of people dropped out of the trades at that time," Vargas says. "It removed a lot of people from the industry entirely. Now, not only do we have a shortage of qualified people, we have this huge flood of work but we have a lot of people who are also retiring at the same time. We're hurting for plumbers right now. Every other company I know is dealing with the same thing."
Damon Runberg with the state Employment Department profiled the issue last month.
"A combination of rapid job growth and skilled workers leaving the industry during the recession led to a labor shortage in the building trades," Runberg wrote. "In the past two years, the construction industry added around 16,000 jobs – a whopping 20 percent increase – making it Oregon's fastest growing industry sector."
It's not just the construction industry that needs workers, Sykes says.
"In general, employers are having difficulty filling positions in all industries, statewide," Sykes explained Wednesday. "With unemployment rates at record lows locally and across the state, there just aren't many workers available. We are seeing upward pressure on wages, new recruitment incentives, and a general desperation by businesses who are trying to hire."
A job vacancy survey conducted in spring revealed labor shortages in the construction trades currently account for the third highest number of vacancies across the state. Health care and social assistance account for the top two.