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Governor's Plan To Pay For Construction Training Not A Fix For Current Labor Crunch

Georgia is looking to step in to help Atlanta construction companies access a wider labor pool. But a new plan, proposed by Gov. Nathan Deal Monday, will likely take years before it could affect the current labor crunch.

Choate Construction superintendent Ron Decker piloting a drone at a construction site

Deal proposed expanding Georgia's HOPE Career Grant program by January to focus on job training for construction jobs and four other fields: aviation, logistics, electrical line work and automotive technology.

“Now we are going full blast, and the [construction] industry itself is saying they need more trained and skilled workers," Deal said Monday during an economic development press conference. “Jobs are available, and we don't have enough qualified people to take those jobs.”

Batson-Cook Co. Vice President Sam Macfie lauded the governor's announcement, but said it is not a quick fix. After all, the seeds of the current labor crunch were sown in the Great Recession when students who were in construction-related programs graduated into a poor job market. When they could not find work, they moved on to other industries.

Deal's program will take time before the industry sees its effects. The new generation of workers will have to enroll in specified programs and spend the time to train before entering the industry.

“I don't think there's any overnight solution to this,” Macfie said. “But it's critical that we develop and train those people now so hopefully in a few years we'll see a reduction of that workforce shortage. We've done a great job of encouraging people to go to college, but I think we need to do a better job of matching people's skills to careers. Not everybody needs a liberal arts education.”

Hope Career Grant is a 2013 program that provides tuition reimbursement for select career training courses, whether a certificate or diploma program, through 50 state and technical schools. Training has been focused on a dozen different industries, including computer programming, trucking, welding, precision manufacturing and movie production.

Since its inception in 2013, the program has funded more than $30M in career training, according to the Georgia Student Finance Commission. The expansion, if approved by the state legislature, would increase the program cost by $1M, SFC Associate Vice President Christopher Green said.

“But there are sufficient funds to cover the cost within the existing program budget,” Green wrote in an email.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal

The construction industry across the U.S. has been battling a labor shortage since the economy emerged from the Great RecessionIncreased labor costs are in part being blamed for the overall rise in construction costs, and the industry is facing more issues, including an aging workforce, with few younger people electing to work in construction.

For Atlanta-based Choate Construction, the labor shortage has prevented the firm from taking on new clients and expanding its pipeline, Senior Vice President Ben Bunyard said.

“Our challenge has been an in-house level of hiring employees to further expand and respond to the market,” Bunyard said. “Without good skilled employees … it's been hard for us to meet the needs of the market.”

Atlanta-based construction firm The Conlan Co. has also faced the issue, since it specializes in concrete construction, a subset of the overall construction industry that requires workers with more specialized skills.

“I will tell you just about any day in the last two years, we'd have taken 50 more [employees] if we could have gotten them,” Conlan President Kevin Turpin said.

Turpin said the big factor in rising costs is having to pay more to those who are in the industry now or potentially lose them to competing firms. 

“The cost of labor has gone up the last couple of years more than I can remember in any period in my career,” he said. “The laborers have never been more comfortable asking their employers for a raise than they are now.”