Contractors struggle to find workers amid building boom

August 26, 2018

An extended building boom in the Flathead Valley has left contractors with more work than their employees can handle, and a labor pool without enough skilled workers to make up the difference.

Local construction companies tell the Daily Inter Lake that the impacts on the industry are being felt through rising wages for skilled laborers, more employees transferring between companies for better pay and benefits, and difficulty for contractors to maintain a qualified crew.

Luke Heffernan, owner of Prime Enterprises Construction, said he has turned down some jobs because of the difficulty in finding workers.

“I only want to take on so much workload with the guys that I have to know that we are gong to do a good job on it,” Heffernan said.

His current crew includes seven people, and he said only two of them have been with the company since he started in 2010. Another two or three have been around a few years, and others are new employees. The crew is made up of subcontractors he works with routinely rather than employees of his firm, a relatively common practice in the industry.

He said he would be open to growing his business, but his biggest struggle is finding and retaining skilled employees, despite bumping wages this year to compete in an increasingly competitive market.

“Wages have gone up,” Heffernan said. “I would say this year we bumped our hourly rate up 5 an hour and spread out some of those dollars to better compensate employees.

“You have to pay a little more to get good guys,” Heffernan said.

Mike Mineau, safety and human resources director for Kalispell-based LHC Construction, also said finding good employees and keeping them was paramount to running a successful construction company in a booming economy. However, he said his firm hadn’t had as much of an issue retaining workers as some small outfits in the valley.

LHC Construction has around 200 employees during peak season. The firm has earned significant local contracts, such as the Kalispell bypass and the Glacier Rail Park.

Mineau said the resources of a larger company allows them to hire workers to general labor positions, then identify the good workers and train them in-house rather than competing to hire skilled workers. That usually shields the company from the woes of fighting for enough employees during busy times.

This year, however, they have had to thrust aside their normal preference of hiring local employees and hire several people from outside the state to fill out their roster, Mineau said. He also said they hadn’t changed wages much this year compared to last.

Aside from being good for workers, at least one local construction firm said the competition has forced them to be more efficient.

Kisa Davison is President of Kalispell-based Nidus Homes Inc., a general contracting firm. She said during peak times, contractors have to be more organized with their jobs to make sure they are getting the most out of a day of work.

“To be honest, what we see is it is forcing us to be smarter and more organized and more efficient in our own planning,” Davison said.

She said she had seen an increase in labor costs from her subcontractors in the past year as well.

“Montana has just become a more expensive state to do business in,” Davison said. “We’re definitely hearing from our subcontracting companies that there are two major constraints on the industry right now. The first is availability of qualified workers, and the second is just availability of supplies.”

Reporter Peregrine Frissell can be reached at (406) 758-4438 or pfrissell@dailyinterlake.com.

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