Hampton Roads contractors struggling to find skilled workers; workforce shortage could soar to 1M in two years

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PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — NFL player-turned-builder Keith Burnell is having a tough time tackling the construction worker shortage.

While taking a new homeowner, Melinda Goodwin, on a walk-through of her new home, Burnell commented on the challenges he faced while demanding quality work for the interior of the two-story Portsmouth home.

“You’ll find people who want to work, but the quality they give and considering the type of contractor I am, I want workers who perform in every house like it’s my house, not their house,” said the former Virginia Tech running back.

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A few miles away in a similar neighborhood in Norfolk, investor Joseph Calhoun sat in his black SUV while making several phone calls. He was outside a bungalow he purchased in an auction. The single-story home has been gutted, but on a Monday morning, he couldn’t find a construction crew to finish the demolition portion of the project.

Calhoun, a Norfolk State University Graduate, waited to exhale and offered an assessment.

“It’s been very difficult, this project right here I felt would have been done maybe three months ago,” said Calhoun.

Projects small and large are experiencing delays as the nation is short about a quarter-million workers. Add to that a pandemic, dramatic increases in the cost of supplies, and supply chain delays and you have an industry on shaky ground.

Associated Builders and Contractors predicts the shortage will grow to one million workers in two years.

FILE – In this June 11, 2020 file photo, workers on scaffolding lay blocks on one of the larger buildings at a development site where various residential units and commercial sites are under construction in Cranberry Township, Butler County, Pa. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

Trade group, Virginia Builds, is watching the trends.

Board member Ellen Pelstring says Hampton Roads has been operating with a worker shortage for the past 10 years.

“With the shortage in the workforce and the supply chain [delays], all I can say is patience when you are working with the right folks the end product. It will come,” offered Pelstring.

“Help wanted” is the sign of the times as the construction industry is scrambling to find skilled workers. Pre-pandemic, Virginia Builds worked to build interest in construction by offering construction site field trips to children.

Pelstring hopes the trips can resume once the coronavirus threat is over.

“Getting back to the hard hat tours we used to do as an industry that the kids love, getting them on the job sites safely showing them that this is something they can be proud to be a part of, said Pelstring, who like many Americans, now works from home.

Alexander Williams has a hard hat that he’s quite proud of. He has a full-time construction job with benefits, and great hours thanks to the Workforce Solutions program at Tidewater Community College.

“I say 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., five days a week, 40 hours guaranteed every week, all you have to do is show up,” said Alexander Williams as he proudly clutched his hard hat. Thanks to new funding from the state, more qualifying students, can enroll in the free G3 program for several fields, including construction.

Tamara Williams (no relation to Alexander Williams) is vice president of the Workforce Solutions program.

“Students who go through this construction portion of our program have jobs before they have credentials. The employers come in, [they] stay engaged. We don’t have anyone left for placement when the course ends,” said Tamara Williams.

“G3” summarizes the goals of the program: get skilled, get a job, and give back.

Alexander Williams is proud of how his new career will position his entire family for success.

“I have an 8-month-old son, a significant other and we are just making it through,” said Alexander Williams.

According to Build Your Future Virginia, a carpenter in the commonwealth earns about $44,000 a year while an electrician earns about $67,000 a year.

Industry insiders are hopeful G3 and other programs will help families and help get the job done on construction sites.

Near Pelstring’s East Beach home, the din of nearby construction work nearly interrupted the interview with 10 On Your Side.

“It’s almost like the sound of freedom — like the jets,” said Pelstring in a clever reference to military jet noise in Hampton Roads.

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