The Labor Citizen, “America’s oldest continually published labor newspaper,” according to its masthead (published in Willoughby, Ohio), had a leading front page headline this month: “Report: 91% of contractors need workers.” The report was released by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGCA). It found that “construction workforce shortages are affecting nearly all construction firms, undermining the industry’s ability to complete projects on schedule and threatening the success of new federal investments in infrastructure and manufacturing.”
The report went on to say that “77% of firms believe the biggest problem is a lack of available candidates who have the skills needed to work in construction or qualified individuals who cannot pass a drug test… (and) while just over three quarters of respondents were most concerned about a lack of viable candidates, more than nine out of 10 respondents (91%) indicated they cannot find enough construction workers to fill open positions for the work they have.”
I find this fascinating. At the same time, the current unemployment rate in the U.S fell to 3.5% in September 2022, equal to July’s 29-month low.
What’s going on? I wish I could give a plausible answer. Jared Lindzon of FastCompany put it this way: “It is the best of times to be a job seeker; it is the worst of times to be a job seeker. It is a time of near record high vacancy rates. It is a time of near record high global inflation. It is the age of the Great Resignation. It is the age of another possible Great Recession. It is the season of mass hiring. It is the season of mass firing. It is the season to switch jobs. It is the season to stay the course. As the job market continues to send opposing signals to job seekers, many are struggling to figure out whether we’re in the middle of a tight talent market or if we’re on the brink of a recession.”
Another impression. I talk to a lot of people in the blue-collar world and what I hear is, “People don’t want to do hard work.” I was in a home improvement store the other day and needed some big dimensional lumber, like 8- and 12-foot pieces of 6-foot by 6-foot treated posts. They’re kind of heavy and since I’m on my way to back surgery, my wife went in search of assistance. No one nowhere to be found. The contractor checkout lady called but said people never listen to her. Finally, my wife located a guy, a nice man, an off-duty sheriff’s officer working part-time at the store who assisted but who also remarked that he was the only one on the floor in that department. Everyone who was supposed to work that day called off. One guy walked off because he didn’t want to load cement bags.
Have you tried to order ready mix concrete recently in Highland County. You can wait weeks for a delivery. One explanation I heard indirectly from a contractor was that this one supplier couldn’t enough hire drivers. When asked how much he was paying he reportedly said, $15 an hour. Well, my guess is that you could find those drivers behind a counter at McDonald’s and that shift comes with food. Now that story could be apocryphal, but my sources are pretty good.
Further confusing this blurred picture of jobs, there’s some potentially good news in this neck of the woods. If you are willing to work and work hard, Honda/LG Energy Solutions have committed to a $4.4 billion joint-venture battery plant in Jeffersonville, Fayette County, just north of the outlet malls at Interstate 71 and U.S. Route 35.
It’s estimated that the plant will create 4,000 construction jobs and 2,200 full-time permanent jobs inside the operational plant. That’s great news for Fayette and Highland counties, that is if you’re willing to work hard and can pass a drug test. It also presumes that you are willing to hit the pause button on your Xbox, sequester your social-media impulses for at least eight hours, and be willing to get up when your alarm goes off in the morning five days a week.
But this news has got to be exciting for those in search of high-paying jobs within reasonable commuting distance from Hillsboro, especially if the $4.4 billion dollar investment turns into a $20 billion investment which is a likely outcome given the predictive growth of electric vehicles over the next decade. The only potential shadow that might cast itself over the battery plant is construction delays. Hoping to be operational by 2024, construction delays have plagued projects in America.
The AGCA report also noted that “82% of firms reported projects have been delayed because of supply-chain challenges, 66% reported that projects were delayed because of labor shortages, and 58% reported canceled, postponed or scaled back projects due to increasing costs.”
So, in this economic era of mixed signals, is it time to go back to work, change jobs, start your own business, work remotely from home, or just fire up the Xbox and calculate how long you can collect unemployment insurance before you have to do something to keep food on the table. It might be a good time to reinvent one’s future, upgrading skills to match high-tech future jobs in places like semi-conductor plants or lithium-ion battery plants like those going into the state of Ohio. Bet on the future. He or she who hesitates is lost.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.