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Chip Sterndahl knew he was going to lose me

Chip Sterndahl knew he was going to lose me. Entering a valley while traveling to a meeting, Sterndahl issued the warning well in advance. With cell phones, however, the connection is not lost forever. One can always call back.
The same can’t be said for employment in the Dow-happy U.S. economy. Once a worker disconnects for a better paying job, chances are they won’t return. It’s an everyday fear in the highway construction industry. Leaders are wise to the fact that skilled workers could be gone tomorrow, leaving holes to fill and jobs unfinished.
The timing couldn’t be worse. With dollars flowing in from the Transportation Equity Act of the 21st Century, projects are flowing out from the design table.
"The economy is so good opportunities are opening up in other areas," Sterndahl told ROADS & BRIDGES. He started his own highway striping business, Sterndahl Enterprises Inc., back in 1970. "I think the problem is compounding."
In part two of a three-part series on the workforce, ROADS & BRIDGES zooms in to see how some are adjusting to the shuffling labor situation.
The line is fading
Sterndahl would’ve gladly traded in that cell phone if it resulted in the return of a good employee he recently lost.
"He came to me from another industry that had gone a little stagnant and he just left because he was able to get a job in the area he had come from," said Sterndahl. "I spent a little more than four years training this person. I considered him a valuable employee, and he has learned a lot. He got an opportunity to make more in an industry he had been involved in before."
Sterndahl is part of a committee in southern California that is in the process of developing an apprenticeship program, which will include 3,800 hours of on-the-job training and 144 classroom hours per year for three years. The whole idea is to recruit people and put them through a formal training process. With technology taking over the industry, the call for skilled workers is a loud one.
"Since the early ’80s, the evolution of our industry and how technical it has gotten is tremendous," said Sterndahl. "The quality of the individual in the labor force that we need today in terms of their technical skills and ability has risen dramatically. The amount of knowledge required is very broad in scope, so it takes awhile to truly train somebody in this craft."
Of course, if you can’t find anybody you have to do it yourself. On the day before the phone interview, Sterndahl and the manager of his shoring division were out in the field running a demonstration of a signal system. Calls to the local union hall have been made, but skilled workers have been scarce. A handful coming off a dam project looked promising, but most lived more than two hours away from Sterndahl’s business.
"In the labor market we’re in, people won’t come that far to work," said Sterndahl. "We are short-handed right now. We’re dodging bullets with the schedule and trying to figure out how to best manipulate our manpower and equipment resources to best serve our customers."
The bullets could feel like torpedoes in the near future. According to Sterndahl, Caltrans has hired an abundance of engineers to push a number of funded projects out to bid. As they catch up, the building side of the business will be even busier.
"It would be nice to have access to workers that are willing to learn, and came into the industry with the understanding that they had an obligation to truly learn the craft. That’s what the apprenticeship program would accomplish," added Sterndahl.
What’s a safe number?
Kathi Holst, president of Alternate Construction Controls Inc. (ACCI), Romeoville, Ill., knows there is a price to pay.
She’s in the traffic control business, and every worker that steps through her door is required to go through a series of training. The bill could run up to $1,000 per employee.
"It’s key for us to attract and then retain those people because we do spend a lot of money per person to get them trained," Holst told ROADS & BRIDGES.
Within one year of employment, the recruits have to become certified as traffic control workers, which calls for the completion of a two-tier course–Traffic Control Technician and Traffic Control Supervisor–put on by the American Traffic Safety Services Association. Once a worker passes those two courses they are eligible to take a written examination for certification. Aspiring supervisors need an additional year of experience supervising workers.
Holst is one of the few who have been able to make an adjustment. Her company handles about 40 construction projects a year, and through a union agreement and the competition ACCI has shown little signs of weakening–this year.
"We watch very closely the turnover that’s goes on in our industry so we can pull people in here who have a great deal of experience and who are certified," said Holst. "The union agreement helps us find people who are local."
ACCI felt the labor pinch two years ago, and reacted by doubling its supervisor and foreman capacities. It has led to the construction of a "hierarchy" of traffic control workers so more steps in the ladder are filled.
However, there is still a need for the experienced worker.
"Where we have a real problem consistently year in and year out is finding people who have enough experience to be able to set and take down a lane closure on their own," said Holst. "We can hire a half dozen or dozen seasonal workers in a year, but it’s too dangerous to send them out there on their own. So they end up operating as more of an assistant."
As far as a long-term remedy to the work shortage, Holst believes one needs to seek the assistance of associations and state legislators. Reaching and recruiting people early in their career-decision process is vital, but tapping into the minds of young children could mark the turning point.
"We need to make them aware that being in the construction industry does have its awards and benefits," she said. "This increase in construction work zone is not going to be short-lived."
They will come, if you build it?
Stephen Wiltshire, corporate director of safety for Shirley Contracting Corp., Lorton, Va., needed to stop and count heads.
"We have a $17-million project ahead of us and I don’t have a clue as to who is going to build it," he told ROADS & BRIDGES. "We have managers, we have executives, but as far as bodies?"
Wiltshire was referring to the reconfiguration of the Route 28/29 interchange in Centreville, Va. Shirley Contracting Corp. used to handle approximately six to eight small jobs a year. These days, the focus has shifted to one or two large-scale projects.
"I’m sure people will show up, but to stamp a job like that you really need some experienced bridge crews," said Wiltshire. "They’re kinda hard to find sometimes."
Shirley currently carries over 300 workers, but when you throw in a project like the one in Springfield, Va., extra hands are always welcome. The Springfield interchange over the I-395 corridor is a $91-million job.
"There are phases of the job where we could probably use three or four more crews to punch out certain areas, but what we’re trying to focus on is putting our people on the critical parts of the project right now and worry about the other stuff later," said Wiltshire. "From that standpoint it’s critical because we can’t finish the job in the time frame that we would like to because of the shortage."
Workers might not be flowing in, but ideas are. The company recently hired a corporate training director and is trying to develop in-house training programs to season the less experienced worker. The development, however, doesn’t happen overnight. A skilled crane operator, for example, must embark on a three-year training program.
"We’re developing programs for other skilled positions, but they won’t be trained in a matter of weeks," said Wiltshire.
There’s also the belief that improving the image of the job could be a valuable tool.
"Pay really isn’t an issue, it’s working conditions, executive management, safety," stressed Wiltshire. "We need to do something to improve in those three areas. I just hope the kids keep coming, because if they aren’t there we’re not going to get much built."
Try this state
The job search knows no boundaries. That’s why Jack L. Massie Contractor Inc., Williamsburg, Va., will travel to West Virginia and Pennsylvania to reach the unemployed. What do they use bait? A trailer. Those hired from out of state have the option of staying in a trailer or camper, courtesy of Massie.
"It’s a way for them to have a spot until they have time to get out and establish themselves in the area," Steve Massie, vice president of Jack L. Massie Contractor Inc., told ROADS & BRIDGES. "We find that it helps with bringing people in and that it makes life easier for them."
The shrinking labor force, however, still complicates matters for Massie, which employs approximately 70 workers for highway, site and utility work.
The contractor has been training anybody and everybody for some time, and this fall plans on starting up a formal training program which will include class work and on-the-job instruction. The goal is to recruit and educate the rookies, as well as sharpen the skilled workers already on the payroll.
"The training is ongoing," said Massie. "Hopefully they’ll become a long-term employee because we’re showing them through training that we do care."
For now, Jack L. Massie Contractor Inc. reaches a point where it has to stop. Eight projects might be up for bid, but the crunch in labor numbers could force companies like Massie to take on four.
"You bid work on your ability to do the work. If you’re short on manpower, you don’t bid as much. The worse you can do is bid on something and not perform for the owner. You’ll never get invited back," added Massie.
Money talks, or they walk
It’s not every day an employer asks a worker to find his replacement. But the idea worked for Couch Construction. Before construction began on I-10 in Madison County, Fla., a crew of about 12 people were told they could return home as soon as they’re subs were properly trained. When it was all said and done, Couch Construction was left holding the 1999 Sheldon G. Hayes Award for Highest Quality in Asphalt Paving for the 60,000-ton milling and overlay project.
Cloyce Darnell was president of the Florida-based company at the time, and said the task presented to the crew was a relatively easy one. Why? The unemployment rate in Madison County was around 10%.
"We were able to hire and pay them much better wages than the rest of the market," Darnell told ROADS & BRIDGES. "Those people learned skills they could use forever in the road construction industry."
Darnell recently started his own consulting business, and is a firm believer that the right worker can be found at the right price. The highway construction industry has run into a problem where the economy is healthy. It hasn’t been competitive when it comes to wages, at least not in the Florida panhandle.
"There’s a big boom in resort-type and general construction, so those unskilled who might normally go to highway construction are getting higher paying jobs elsewhere," said Darnell.
That’s not what the Florida Department of Transportation wants to hear. Gov. Jeb Bush recently signed the Mobility 2000 Initiative (See Hurricane watch pushes Florida to pass record funding package, p 20). The law calls for the advanced completion of nearly $6 billion worth of transportation improvements, and is the largest transportation funding increase in state history.
"That coupled with the rapid development of the Sunshine State . . . there’s just a huge demand for anybody willing to do any construction trade. When we have to try to convince them that ours is better it is very difficult to do."
Not even one
Sometimes it’s hard to win at the waiting game. Glenn Jilek, a Federal Highway Administration planning and technology engineer for the state of Kentucky, doesn’t know what else to do. He’s been trying to fill his intelligent transportation systems (ITS) specialist position since February. He’s had two applicants so far.
"It’s very frustrating, to tell you the truth," Jilek told ROADS & BRIDGES. "It’s been bonkers being down one person. You don’t really feel like you can serve the major customers in the state and local governments."
Jilek was zonked a couple of months ago. He thought he had the perfect candidate in line, until a counter offer was made.
"We just can’t get into a bidding war," said Jilek.
The U.S. Government’s pay scale is divided into grade levels. Jilek believes the grade level for the ITS specialist position is too low and outdated. Several steps must be taken on Capitol Hill before grade levels are improved.
"It’s hard for the government to compete with the private industry in the speed of recruiting people," said Jilek.
In response to the lack of qualified applicants, Jilek is trying to restructure positions. He has somebody with ITS experience in the office, and with some additional course work that person can be brought up to speed.
ITS is a technology on the rise in the U.S., as more funds are shoveled in annually. Jilek says Kentucky has a very progressive ITS program, and would hate to see the state fall behind because it wasn’t provided the necessary assistance.
"There’s a limit to how much you can do in a day. I’ve been a team leader in this section for about seven years and I know a little bit about everything that’s been going on, but I’m not a specialist. There is only so much I can offer," he added.

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