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Where are the workers? Construction industry red hot in the Valley

Posted: 9:30 PM, May 21, 2019
Updated: 2019-05-22 01:26:43-04
Firms enticing workers to get into construction

PHOENIX — Laying block in the Arizona sun. It's not for wimps.

"It's hot," laughed Tanner Brooks, an apprentice with Sutter Masonry. But Brooks does it every day. Even as an apprentice, he's likely making more money than his former schoolmates and he has no student loan debt. He's also just 19 years old.

"It allowed me to pay for my own vehicle, my own place to live, and I live comfortably, " Brooks said. "I don't struggle all."

He also didn't struggle to find his job. In fact, he says construction companies were calling him while he was in school, when he started working as an apprentice before he ever graduated.

Numbers recently released by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) show the Phoenix metro area added nearly 14,000 construction jobs from March 2018 to March 2019.

"The job market in construction is like it's never been in before," said Mike Sutter, founder of Sutter Masonry.

Based in El Mirage, the company employs close to 125 year-round workers. But like many construction-related companies, it has a hard time getting enough staff to meet the demand.

"We have to turn down work because we don't have the manpower to do the job," said Sutter. "You can only do so much."

Sutter said his apprentices start at $18 an hour, with raises every 6 months and plenty of overtime. Journeymen make close to $30 an hour, Sutter said.

According to AGC of America, cement masons and concrete finishers make, on average, more than $45,000 a year. Electricians and carpenters earn even more at nearly $58,000 and $50,000, respectively.

Sutter says he could easily double the size of his company if there were enough qualified workers to fill the positions. He believes the answer to the industry's manpower problem is letting students know trades are an option and schools like West-MEC in north Phoenix offer classes.

"Some students will have multiple job offers just because of the way that it is right now," said Maya Milhon, recruiter for West-MEC, a public school that offers career and technical classes for students in the north and west Valley.

According to Milhon, the construction, electrician and HVAC programs are two to three hours a day. The only cost for high school students is the $125 fee for materials.

High school senior Zach Betts knows he's making the right choice taking classes to be an electrician.

"After this, I'll have no student debt and during my apprenticeship, I'll start making between $30,000 and $40,000 a year, then after the apprenticeship it'll go from $60,000 to $70,000 a year," he said.

Awsam Noarah is taking the same courses and he's going to college in the fall.

"In my free time maybe have a part-time job and go work [as an electrician]," he said.

Both teens leave their home high school in the middle of the day and attend West-MEC in the afternoons. Betts said his parents were very supportive.

"They know the money is good and there's no student debt," said Betts. But his parents may be the exception. Old stereotypes about trade jobs, like they are dirty, low-paying, with back-breaking work and no upward mobility, may give them pause. Milhon says it's just not the case.

"The parents are a little more challenging because they want to protect their students, and understandably so. They want to make sure that it is really what they think it's going to be," said Milhon.

Right now, companies know the stakes are high.

"There are companies that would lose their men for 50 cents an hour," said Sutter. "It's a relationship and the culture that you have at your company and how well you treat your employees so they don't do that to you."

AGC of America also believes current immigration policies are stifling growth. The group is lobbying the government for several changes, including a visa program to alleviate the shortage. The group is also asking for a path to legal status for undocumented construction workers already in the country who haven't otherwise been in trouble with the law.

"Everybody is hurting for manpower. They are doing everything they can to get the manpower, to recruit and train it," said Sutter. And also, to keep it.