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Outreach to young people will help ease shortage of construction workers

It’s a problem one could hardly imagine a few short years ago in Buffalo. Too much work and not enough of the right workers.

But that is exactly the situation affecting some of the building trades. The appropriate response is to train more men and women to fill the need while construction is booming. The skills the trainees gain will be transferable to other projects here and elsewhere.

There is so much development happening right here, right now that it can be difficult to find enough construction workers. Retirees from the trades are being asked to consider returning to the job, and workers are being recruited from outside the area: Rochester, the Southern Tier, Albany and, in an ironic reversal of years of employment migration, as far away as Arizona and Las Vegas.

Buffalo hasn’t had this problem in years. Decades. Living memory. Call it a problem if you like, but call it a good problem.

Projects are looking for workers – laborers, masons, painters, electricians and plumbers. These are skills that will last a lifetime for jobs that cannot be easily automated. But there must be enough men and women with the necessary training to fill those jobs.

As News business reporter Jonathan D. Epstein recently wrote, there is a universal shortage of these qualified workers. More than four of every five member companies in the national trade group Associated Builders & Contractors say that they’re facing a shortage of skilled labor. Across New York, the construction industry has gained thousands of jobs from last year to this year.

According to the state Labor Department, there were 27,000 workers in the construction, mining and natural resources sector in Buffalo Niagara in October, the highest total recorded for any month for at least a quarter-century.

Making matters even tighter are pending retirements of longtime workers. About 40 percent of the construction workers across the state will be of retirement age within a couple of years. The worker shortage is especially acute locally, with union halls reporting near maximum levels of employment. Retirees are being contacted and told of available opportunities.

It should be noted that there are still unemployed workers. Laborers Local 210 maintains a list of available members. Same for the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Union Local 3 that covers Buffalo and Jamestown east to Rochester and Corning.

A few very large projects are putting pressure on resources: The University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, the John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital, Roswell Park Cancer Institute’s Clinical Sciences Center, SolarCity and its 1 million-square-foot production plant at Riverbend, and Delaware North’s 12-story headquarters and hotel on Delaware Avenue.

These projects will be completed in a few years, but there are many, many smaller projects in the pipeline, with many more in the years to come. The need for skilled workers is not going away, and can be solved with a focus on recruiting and training.

The field should prove attractive to young people looking for well-paying jobs, benefits and the peace of mind of knowing that they are trained in jobs that will be in demand.

Note these words from the Labor Department’s regional economist: “This has been the best summer for construction that we’ve seen in the modern era.”

There’s no reason to expect the rebuilding of Buffalo to end anytime soon.

As Tom Fox, director of development for Ellicott Development Co., said, “We’re victims of our own success.”