There was a bad situation brewing in the Nebraska construction industry 10 years ago.

The recession only postponed it. "Then we were looking at, 'Let's keep the people we have working,'" said Jean Petsch, executive director of the Associated General Contractors Nebraska Building Chapter.

Now it's here: Lots of Nebraska construction people are retiring and not enough younger people are stepping up to do the growing amount of work.

"Now everybody's rockin' and rollin' and it's so we've got a perfect storm," Petsch said. 

Last year, a small group of construction people did some research and planning, pulled together some documents and research, validated anecdotally.

"Basically it came down to: We have an image problem, in the eyes of students and young people and parents and educators," Petsch said.

If it looks like the same kind of situation facing manufacturers who started the Dream It Do It program in Nebraska years ago to get young people interested in making things, it is.

The small group turned into the Nebraska Construction Industry Council to address, among other issues, the big challenge of attracting people to work.

They launched a website, BuildOurNebraska.com, with content to help educate Nebraskans on the variety of career opportunities available in the construction industry.

“Construction opportunities are vast,” says Petsch, in a pitch drawing attention to the new site. “There’s a career for all skill and degree levels, which is paired with competitive pay and benefits.”

In an interview, Petsch said practically all the state's parents, teachers and kids "totally lack awareness of our industry, the full array of types of jobs and positions and no idea how well those positions pay."

"Couple that with over 20 years of emphasis in education, how we fund programs," she said.  "We have moved away from career and technical training to a greater emphasis on a four-year degree. Couple that with the other half, our work force is aging. The average age of skilled and crafts workers is over 50 years old. They're retiring faster than they're coming in the other end. That, in all honesty, is the main culprit here in Nebraska, creating our shortage."

People in state government departments of Education and Labor have joined the effort, promoting the industry's website as a place for students and teachers in Nebraska schools to get information about opportunities.

More person-to-person education is happening and planned, as well, including half a dozen construction career days at high schools this fall.

They are also developing strategic alliances with SkillsUSA (skillsusa.org), supporting efforts for craft programs in Nebraska high schools.

But the immediate focus is the launch of BuildOurNebraska.com

The new Nebraska Construction Industry Council site displays career paths, educational requirements, potential wages, resources, events, job openings and scholarships.

Labor market analysts project 22.5 percent growth in new jobs, not just replacements, from 2010 to 2020 in Nebraska. That's almost 10,000 new openings.

So if there's so much opportunity, what's the problem?

The industry acknowledges fighting a stigma -- an image that construction is not a worthy career path for smart, capable kids. You might even get dirty at work.

For a fact, there are entry-level laboring positions, but there are also highly skilled jobs for electricians, plumbers, carpenters and masons, with employers "clamoring" for them, Petsch said.

"On the next level up, superintendents, estimators, project managers," she said. "Those are the jobs I hear mentioned most often. Entry-level, mid-level, they all pay well. You can come in at high school, you can come in with a two-year degree, you can do a four-year college route. We have great career ladders at every level. You don't just stay a greeter. You don't just stay a car hop. Construction worker pay in Nebraska averages $43,400 annually. That's 10 percent more than all private sector employers in Nebraska. Talk about a concrete measuring point."

Wes Ostreich, president of Cheever Construction in Lincoln, sees it up close. His company uses traditional methods and some websites to attract employees, but it's not always working.

"Nobody responds any more," he said. "There's just not a plethora of people out there looking for openings. It's hard to find somebody specifically, but most importantly, someone with background or experience. We're more than than willing to take the right people with the right attributes and teach them if they're just willing to show up."

His base of employees now is 40. Nationally, and Nebraska is no different, he says, most companies have 25 or fewer employees. So while it's a big industry everywhere, the businesses typically are not large.

Demand is there, Ostreich said, for the subcontracting trades, electricians, heating and air conditioning, drywall, caulking, painters.

"Heres' an example," he said. "We're working on a job at Peru State, renovating old classrooms, it's primarily heating and A/C, messy demolition. It's time-consuming, not particularly gratifying but necessary. We've augmented work crews down there, about four Peru State students working for us between classes, some of them getting 40 hours a week in. Without even questioning them we're paying $11 an hour, they're not going to find that at a local hamburger joint. For part-time time work, they're making $400 a week.

"And people like to tear down schools," Ostereich said with a laugh.

Traditionally, the economy demands people in a ratio of 1 to 2 to 7, Ostreich said: One person with a doctorate, two college graduates and seven tradespeople. "This has been the ratio for decades," he said. "It's not foreseen to be changing, but we're not turning it out. We're putting it all into four-year (education). There's a tremendous amount of fallout. Compared to most of those who graduate, skilled tradespeople are more in demand at higher wages and are more employed in their discipline."

Again, the problem?

"It's not appreciated or valued work," Ostreich said. "If you come home with dirty jeans and muddy boots, you could aspire to better. It's such a vital part of the economy. I think people remove themselves and see only that component, the backbreaking component. Drywallers covered in white mud.

"It's like it's nothing to brag about. We're the craftsmen who build the places everybody enjoys. The biggest battle is convincing parents. There is actually business opportunity there, if they want to learn a trade. In our local Lincoln area we have gobs of subcontractors that are one- to five-man jobs. You learn and in a few years you could be a business owner."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7241 or at dpiersol@journalstar.com. Twitter@RichardPiersol


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