Miami Labor Jobs
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Credit: Miami Herald

Miami is a city with an ever changing skyline. And those who make it happen — the plumbers, electricians, brick masons and carpenters — earn far above the local median: $55,000-75,000 a year with full benefits and a pension.

But as the economy barrels toward full employment, local contractors are struggling to find enough skilled workers to fuel the construction boom.

“We’re seeing it across the board. There are shortages in every trade,” said Peter Dyga, president of the South Florida-based Florida East Coast Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, a non-profit trade organization comprised of several construction firms and contractors.

With 243,000 open jobs construction jobs nationwide, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — and more than 500 listed by local ABC members — South Florida has become a worker’s market, said Peggy Marker, president of Fort Lauderdale-based Marker Construction, “the employees are in a position where they are interviewing us as much as we are interviewing them.”

As a result, 95 percent of those who come to ABC looking to learn a trade are matched with a job — experienced or not. “The reason it’s not 100 percent is that not everybody that walks through the door is serious,” Dyga said. “That’s how acute the shortage is.”

Peter Tuffo, president of the southeast arm of construction management firm Suffolk, sees the worker shortfall as a basic economic principle: supply and demand.

South Florida is building like crazy, and Miami has added over 6,300 construction jobs since May of last year, more than any other business sector. There simply aren’t enough highly trained electricians, plumbers, heating, mechanical workers and tile setters to meet the demand, said Tuffo.

And with Miami’s increasingly intricate projects — such as the $200 million MiamiCentral Brightline Station — high-skilled laborers able to handle complex electrical wiring and knowledgeable of the latest techniques are more critical than ever.

“The high level of complexity of projects for the region is driving the level of skill set for the tradesmen up,” said Tuffo. “As projects become more complex, it takes longer to get people caught up on those new methods.”

The shortage translates into higher labor costs, longer timetables — and more expensive projects.

“The primary things that people see during a labor shortage is rising wages and the need for people to train more folks,” said Wade Helms, president of Edd Helms Group, which performs HVAC — heating, ventilation and air conditioning — and electrical work. “The projects get built, they just take longer.”

Helms has seen the cost of labor rise 2.9 percent over the past year. And even pay increases aren’t always enough to draw new workers, said Eric Montes, partner at the local general contracting firm Grycon.

“I know subcontractors that have turned down bidding some of our work because they are too busy and lack manpower,” he said.

Making matters worse, says Dyga, is an industry mindset that doesn’t always anticipate future needs.

While some companies like Suffolk go out of the way to boost skills with programs such as its Trade Partnership Series for veteran, minority or women- owned businesses, or ABC’s recent pledge to create 5,000 apprenticeships throughout Florida, other firms ignore formal education, Dyga said.

“There are plenty of contractors that don’t have one formally trained employee,” he said. “Then, when the market is good, they turn around and need workers with three- to four years of training. We need and industry that values education.”

Florida statute mandates a free education in any trade apprenticeship. All employers have to do is pay for lab fees and books, which can run as low as $250 per worker annually.

For workers, a good education means an immediate payout and future opportunity. Nearly all skilled trades pay above Miami’s $35,000 median annual wage, according to BLS data. Formal training ups the stakes; electricians, plumbers, HVAC technicians, line erectors and fire protection technicians start at a minimum of $51,000, according to ABC wage data.

Despite the prospect of higher wages and a friendly job market, many younger workers worry about job security in the cyclical construction industry.

During the Great Recession, an estimated 1.5 million residential construction workers leftthe industry, according to reports. Federal labor data tells the story: while overall unemployment peaked at 12 percent in 2010, construction workers suffered job losses closer to 25 percent.

While the 2008-2010 recession was unusually severe, real estate downturns have been an ongoing part of South Florida’s past. “In my experience, the cycles run from 5 to 7 years,” said Helms. But highly trained workers have greater security, he said. “The way to stay out of the cycle is by getting training. There’s almost always a need for high-skilled workers.

Other young workers shy away from the physical nature of the work.

“It’s just stressful on the body,” said Anthony Pierce, a recent graduate of ABC’s electrical program. “You could be out in the Miami sun for hours hoisting 4-inch piping.”

Conditions and pay can vary widely by employer. While some offer benefits — such as a 401(k) plan, pension and health care — smaller employers often pay only an hourly wage.

Pierce said he isn’t getting benefits at his current job. Still, for him, the positives outweigh the downside. Occasionally he returns to his previous employer — Miami’s Boys and Girls Club — where he first learned about the apprenticeship program during an ABC high school outreach.

“When I go back to the Boys and Girls club,” said Pierce. “I tell them ‘Don’t let them tell you you have to go to college to be successful.’”

Pierce’s only regret is that he waited until he was 25 years old to begin training.

“I wish I had started right out of high school. I could be making $50 an hour by now.”

Training options

Associated Builders and Contractors: Anyone with a high-school diploma seeking a job or apprenticeship can simply call or walk into the nearest Associated Builders and Contractors location to fill out an application and take an aptitude test. The organization has several South Florida locations, including one in Doral. A recruiter will connect candidates with companies, even setting up interviews.

“We do a lot of hand holding,” said Ruth Tirado, vice president of education and training at the ABC Institute, the educational arm of the ABC.

Once matched with a full-time job, the employer will send the candidate to the ABC Institute for classes and training. Those usually run one or two nights a week for two to four hours each, and apprentices go after they are done with their work day.

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The Institute offers education in several trades, each with varying curriculum lengths: electrical (four years); fire safety (four years); plumbing (four years); line erecting (three years); heating, ventilation and air conditioning (four years), roofing (three years) and soon — carpentry (two years).

Students work full time and are paid for a 40-hour week. First-year electricians in the ABC program earn a minimum of $15 an hour. Each year, an apprentice gets another $2-$3 raise until they graduate at $25 an hour. If a graduate gets his journeyman’s license, he or she gets another raise to at least $29 an hour, according to ABC data.

Union Associations: Union shops are another alternative, although they’re often more competitive — some programs have only 20 spots a year. Programs are at least four years long; some last five. Post completion, Helms said, union workers make almost double that of non-union labor.

“Non-union avenues don’t have a wage scale-based education,” said Helms, a board member of the South Florida chapter of the National Electrical Companies Association. “They don’t have a wage minimum. “ And in his opinion, “the quality of education that you get through a union program is substantially better,” and workers are less likely to lose out when the building cycle ebbs.

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