September 19, 2019
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Despite demand for construction workers, drug screenings create barriers to jobs

Melissa Lizotte | Star Herald
Melissa Lizotte | Star Herald
Workers from PNM Construction work on the classroom laboratory portion of the University of Maine at Presque Isle's new Zillman Family Greenhouse on Friday, Aug. 9.

Most Maine construction firms still plan to add jobs in the next 12 months as they expand their businesses, despite having difficulty filling hourly and salaried jobs, a new survey finds.

But contracting companies have a low opinion of the available workforce, according to the study, with close to three quarters of them reporting that workers have only a poor to fair chance of passing a drug test.

The survey was released Tuesday by software company Autodesk and the Associated General Contractors of America, an industry association. The survey included 2,000 respondents, 12 of whom are from Maine.

“Workforce shortages remain one of the single most significant threats to the construction industry,” said Stephen Sandherr, the association’s CEO. He said that technology and legislation could help alleviate the problem.

The association is backing H.R. 1740, legislation introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives in March that aims to allow guest visas for construction workers. Current law allows legal immigation for high-tech, agriculture and seasonal workers.

The proposed legislation could help states like Maine that have an aging workforce and a low unemployment rate, he said. Maine’s preliminary rate for July was 3 percent, a record low, according to the Maine Department of Labor.

“The legislation would allow for needs-based guest workers for as long as the unemployment rate remains the same,” he said.

Some 82 percent of Maine companies surveyed said they planned to add hourly craft personnel and another 70 percent said they planned to add salaried field and office personnel.

However, all Maine companies said they are having a hard time filling hourly positions. That’s much higher than the 80 percent national figure. Those hourly positions make up the bulk of the construction workforce, the association said.

Bricklayers, cement masons, drywall installers, painters and roofers continue to be in very high demand in Maine.

Another 67 percent of Maine companies said they are having trouble finding people for salaried positions. More than half had unfilled salaried positions and about three-quarters had unfilled hourly positions.

Maine gained 500 construction jobs from July 2018 to July 2019, when the state had 29,500 jobs. It was one of 40 states that gained construction jobs for the year and among the 25 that added jobs from June to July.

Nationwide, 73 percent of construction companies said it will continue to be hard or even get more difficult to find more hourly workers over the next 12 months. One of the reasons is that they are skeptical about the quality of the potential workers, the contractors’ association said.

Some 73 percent of construction companies across the United States and 81 percent of Maine firms said the prospects of finding someone who could pass a drug test are only poor to fair.

Another 84 percent of Maine companies don’t have high expectations of getting someone who is trained and another 75 percent said applicants have little chance of passing a background check.

The labor shortages are prompting many firms to boost pay and compensation. Two-thirds of firms report they have increased base pay rates for hourly workers. And 29 percent said they are providing incentives and bonuses to attract craft workers.

Some companies are adopting technology to help relieve the labor shortage, said Allison Scott, head of construction integrated marketing at Autodesk, a California software and services company that helped with the survey.

She said 29 percent of firms nationally are investing in technology and one-quarter of firms are using drones, robots, 3D printers and other cutting-edge technologies.

Only 17 percent of Maine companies have invested in technology to automate processes to supplement worker duties. Sandherr said that is not surprising in states where construction companies tend to be smaller, meaning they do $50 million or less in business per year. Most Maine companies also have fewer than 250 employees.

The worker shortage has caused projects to take longer than expected across the country. Some 75 percent of Maine companies have put longer completion dates and higher prices into their contracts.

With some economists predicting a looming recession, construction companies remain wary, though they said they are better prepared than in the great recession, when many construction workers lost jobs. Most don’t expect to have to turn away work if they plan carefully.

“We are diversifying our industry segments,” said Katie Haydon Perry, director of organizational development at Haydon Building Corp. in Phoenix, Arizona. “We are preparing.”


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