Cornelius Debase, a 19-year-old, first-semester student at Texas State Technical College, fits the description of what many employers want these days, with jobs in construction and related industries going begging.
Debase, who graduated high school in Waxahachie, hopes to become a welder, a profession that holds the promise of an hourly wage approaching $28, “double that if the work is underwater,” he said Thursday while visiting a job expo hosted by TSTC.
About 95 companies, some with an international presence, set up displays, chatted with students and accepted resumes during a four-hour session at the Student Recreation Center. With an hour left on the clock, more than 700 TSTC students and alumni had registered, an official said.
“Many of these companies represent industries where jobs are in great demand,” career services executive director Kacey Darnell said. “We’re talking about advanced manufacturing, just about anything in the construction trades, welding, robotics, advanced manufacturing and transportation.”
A shortage of skilled labor is plaguing homebuilding efforts and other construction around the state, according to industry experts.
“The forecast for housing markets in Texas looks good, but there remains a lack of inventory, which is being aggravated by the labor situation,” said Luis Torres, a research economist at the Texas A&M University Real Estate Center. “More than 60 percent of home sales involve properties priced lower than $300,000, but there is a shortage of such homes in larger metropolitan areas due to this issue.”
Not having a reliable supply of plumbers, electricians, carpenters and air-conditioning technicians leads to higher housing costs and work delays, Torres said.
“The economy is basically at full employment, and there are a record number of job openings across the country, so there are shortages in a number of sectors, particularly those in technology and health care,” Waco-based economist Ray Perryman wrote in an email response to questions.
The construction sector has been hardest hit by far, Perryman said.
“Part of it is the growth in population in Texas and commercial/industrial activity, and part of it is the diversion of resources to the Gulf Coast region in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey,” he said.
Immigration also affects the availability of workers to fill construction jobs, Perryman said.
“About 250,000, or 40 percent, of the Texas construction workforce is undocumented, and sanctuary city laws, increased enforcement and talk of stricter rules going forward are limiting this supply,” he said. “Whatever your politic, it is a simple case of mathematics that Texas needs those workers and does not have another ready source available.”
Scott Bland, a local builder and president of the Heart of Texas Builders Association, said the days of recruiting a few people from the neighborhood to build houses have passed. City and national building codes and stylistic flourishes demand crews with greater skills.
“We’ve spent the last 40 years telling students they either go to college or they are failures,” Bland said. “The message is that they don’t really want to be an electrician. Well, give me the earning potential of someone with an electrician’s certificate over someone with a liberal arts degree from Baylor University. I’m paying about $34 an hour for their services.”
Jobs in construction paying $40,000 to $60,000 a year are going unfilled, he said.
“The city of Waco spent two years trying to find an inspector, and they did not see a qualified applicant in all that time because one requirement was being a licensed plumber,” Bland said.
K. Paul Holt, executive director of Waco’s Associated General Contractors of America office, said he is seeing “an accelerating shortage of skilled craft and tradespeople,” but believes help is on the horizon.
“I just attended a Skillpoint Alliance graduation for several people who completed an eight-week heating, ventilation and air conditioning quick-start training program,” Holt said. “The TSTC construction trades department continues to blossom and get larger. They are doing a great job out there. And the AGC and the HOT Builders just donated about $50,000 apiece to create a construction academy with the Waco school district, and a ribbon-cutting is scheduled soon.”
About 40 students are already enrolled in the Greater Waco Construction Science Academy, he said.
“The biggest shortage we are seeing is like trying to name a favorite child,” Bland said. “The median age of licensed electricians and plumbers is in the upper 50s, and that number is not coming down. It’s a huge problem, which is why we see the academy, which will accept students from districts all over McLennan County, as so important.”
Also important is a bill the Texas Legislature passed during its last session, with State Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, leading the charge, Bland said. The legislation makes it more economically feasible for business and industry to hire students for paid internships.
“Insurance carriers were telling us that if we put high school kids on the job, they would drop their coverage,” Bland said. “The Legislature made a change allowing coverage of those engaged in a career technical education internship similar to coverage for students taking field trips.”
Counting cash and in-kind donations of material, the Associated General Contractors and Heart of Texas Builders Association actually donated about $200,000 to Waco ISD’s academy, he said.
He also would like colleges and universities to work with students on six- to seven-year programs of coursework that would allow them to secure construction-related jobs as they study, Bland said.
“Stop selling the four-year degree,” he said. “The industry is in such a desperate state that heating, ventilation and air conditioning, electrical and plumbing companies would work with students on their schedules, making it possible to work while going to school. There is no way they would graduate in four years, but they would graduate in six or seven, and they would leave school without debt.”