Facing $9 billion in demand, Iowa contractors feel impact of skilled labor shortage

Updated Jun 4, 2013
Jonathan Silke cuts shingles on a roof in Des Moines. Credit: Bryon Houlgrave/The Des Moines RegisterJonathan Silke cuts shingles on a roof in Des Moines. Credit: Bryon Houlgrave/The Des Moines Register

Add Iowa to a growing list of states struggling to meet rebounding construction demand due to a shortage of skilled laborers.

According to a report from the Des Moines Register, contractors in Iowa have reported shortages of equipment operators, steel workers, carpenters, supervisors and concrete workers. These companies expect those shortages to deepen in the coming months.

The shortages are going to make it a challenge for Iowa contractors to meet what is sure to be heavy demand this year. The Register reports that the state is expected to see about $9 billion in large public and private commercial projects in addition to the construction of Orascom Construction Industries $1.8 billion plant in Wever and a $1.7 billion expansion of a CF Industries plant near Sioux City.

As was the case in Houston, some of Iowa’s construction labor shortage is due to fracking operations. In the northern half of the state, construction companies have lost workers to fracking operations in the North Dakota oil fields.

In fact, the paper cites an estimate from Master Builders of Iowa which forecasts a shortage of about 2,730 workers each year for the next seven years

“It’s hard to find skilled workers who want to do construction today,” Mike Espeset, president of Story Construction in Ames, told the paper. “It’s harder than it was, and I think it’s going to get a lot, lot worse.”

The main cause is the same as it is elsewhere in the U.S. During the recession, many construction workers retired and many more left the industry for more stable jobs and aren’t coming back.

Mike Tousley, the executive vice president of Weitz Construction, said his company has seen a great deal of applicants but not with the skills and experience the company requires. Tousley said the company has even encouraged some of its experienced project managers to postpone their plans to retire.

Just as CaliforniaHouston are Minnesota’s Twin Cities are exploring, Iowa is now attempting to ramp up its recruitment efforts to attract younger workers and teens who have shown little interest in the industry. In addition, Iowa unions are rebuilding apprenticeship programs.

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As we reported a few weeks back, contractors across the country are convinced their inability to meet rising demand caused by the widespread labor shortages has already hurt their contribution to the country’s economic recovery.