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Construction industry hiring and planning for the future during pandemic

Business COVID-19 Metro ATL Trending Tucker

Construction industry hiring and planning for the future during pandemic

Construction projects seemingly unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic, keep rolling along like this one on Lawrenceville Highway in DeKalb County, April 25, 2020. Photo by Dean Hesse.
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By Crystal Jarvis, contributor

DeKalb County, GA – While some industries in Dekalb County have either dried up or been forced to close their doors, there is one industry in the Atlanta metropolitan market that is still thriving: construction.

A field that was particularly hit hard by the Great Recession more than 12 years ago, is performing better than most would expect during this pandemic-spurred downturn. While construction is down more than 32 percent year over year, according to Glass Door Economic Research, a quick Indeed.com search still yields more than 1,400 vacant construction and construction-related jobs. Amid such unusual times, construction managers are scrambling to meet demand, industry experts say.

Many construction companies have altered their business strategies by scheduling virtual job interviews via Zoom — a popular video conferencing platform that has witnessed its usage explode during the Covid-19 crisis — to quickly get brick hammers and cordless drills in the hands of qualified applicants in order to meet construction deadlines on time and on budget.

“There is a labor shortage in construction—even now,” said Scott Shelar, President and CEO of the Construction Education Foundation of Georgia (CEFGA), a nonprofit organization that provides hands-on training to help prepare workers for promising opportunities in the construction industry. “The good news is that construction workers have been wearing PPE before it was fashionable.”

Since construction work was deemed essential by Georgia officials, the industry hasn’t suffered as greatly as some other local industries like hospitality and retail.

“So far, we will continue on with the contracts we’ve received within the last six to seven months,” said Tony Varamo, Workforce Development Manager of MetroPower, an electrical construction company headquartered in Tucker, Ga. “We did have one project to stall until September.”

This time around, construction companies are thinking beyond the current market conditions. The mistakes they made during the last recession that started in 2008 are still fresh on their minds—when many hastily shuttered apprenticeship programs and furloughed workers. Forced with difficult decisions, many construction workers had to find work in other fields to survive. And many of them never returned.

Without apprenticeships, the pool of new laborers was practically nonexistent.

“This time around we’re thinking long term as far as people go,” Varamo said, who hired five electricians and two interns within the past two weeks. “As you can see, we are still filling our coffers with people in anticipation of the future.”

Varamo said that MetroPower, which has more than 800 employees throughout Georgia, also plans to continue offering its all-inclusive apprenticeship programs, which provide 40-hours of paid on-the-job training every week and a training class once a week, which is all paid for by the employee-owned company.

During a major time of uncertainty for many working professionals, the door is wide open for people interested in making a transition to a new line of work amid the pandemic. Higher-level managers who lost their jobs in other industries, such as manufacturing, will likely possess several transferrable skills that can be valuable to the construction industry, Shelar said.

“They can step into a higher-level role pretty quickly and make more than $20 per hour,” he said. “There are a number of great opportunities in the industry. Heck, you can own your own company if that’s what you want to do and make as much money as you want to make.”

Entry-level positions are also available for high school students and college students who recently graduated with a degree in Construction Management, said Jeremy Whitaker, the Recruitment and Development Manager of C.W. Matthews Contracting Co., Inc.

The company, which was awarded more than $31 million in highway construction projects from the Georgia Department of Transportation in April, is still looking to fill a few more positions with high school students who are interested in the construction industry, Whitaker said.

“If they show us that they’re a rock star and they have a great attitude and work ethic and have a teachable spirit, we will find work for them and do all of the things needed to help them become successful,” Whitaker said.

Interest in the construction industry has rapidly declined over the years, as more and more young adults started enrolling in colleges and universities, compounded by Baby Boomers retiring out of the profession. Industry experts have been working hard over the years to attract candidates to the field. CEFGA offers a four-week training program to train workers who could start out in entry-level positions paying between $13 and $15 an hour. And the opportunities in the industry extend far beyond just construction. There are jobs available in utilities, electrical, mining and highway contracting.

Now, with the right combination of job shortages in other industries, the construction industry could make a major comeback.

“A college degree became a status symbol,” Shelar said. “There are people who like to sit at computers all day to use their brains, but there are also people who like to be outside and use their brains— and hands.”

Crystal Jarvis specializes in writing feature articles about the job market. She is the owner of Splash of Color Creative Solutions, which creates marketing campaigns for small businesses, job-winning resumes, and cover letters. Have a question about the job market? You can reach her at team@splashofcolorcreativesolutions.com.

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