Looking for work in the Yakima Valley? Builders are hiring

But contractors and industry representatives say finding workers is a challenge.

By Donald W. Meyers

Yakima Herald-Republic

If you’re looking for work, Yakima Valley’s building contractors are hiring.

But contractors and industry representatives say finding workers is a challenge, due to a shortage of people and the amount of significant work going on, from construction at Central Washington University to projects around the Yakima Valley.

“I called the union hall looking for seven journeyman carpenters, and I got zero,” said Don Holden, a superintendent with VK Powell Construction in Yakima. “I can’t hire someone if I can’t find them.”

But one Yakima technical school is trying to fill the gap with a recently created construction trade program that is already sending students out to work sites as part of their education.

Overall nationally, the construction industry is growing. The Associated General Contractors of America’s research found that construction employment increased in most metropolitan areas around the country, with the Riverside, Calif., Los Angeles and Las Vegas areas generating the most jobs between June 2016 and June 2017.

Washington state gained almost 11,800 jobs statewide in the construction industry during the same time period, with the Seattle-Bellevue-Everett area gaining 3,600 construction jobs, followed by the Tacoma-Lakewood area, with 1,400.

Yakima County posted an increase of 200 jobs in that same time period, going from 4,000 in June 2016 to 4,200 in June 2017.

But the number is not sufficient to keep up with the demand. In Yakima, more than 130 building permits were issued in July.

Carly Faul, Central Washington Homebuilders Association executive officer, believes there are a few factors affecting the supply of workers in the building trades.

One factor is the drop-off in home construction when the mortgage crisis hit the area. That, she believes, caused many who worked in the trades to leave the Yakima Valley to find work or to go into different fields, which has caused a shortage. In 2008, building permits for new single-family homes in were down 23 percent from the previous year, with only 111 issued in Yakima by August of that year. By comparison, 47 permits were issued for new single-home construction in the city as of the end of June this year.

“I was talking with a contractor who said if he could find 30 people who could work, he would hire them,” Faul recalled.

Sometimes finding workers is not as simple as putting an ad in the newspaper or help-wanted signs up around town.

Holden said his company has to work through union halls — which means he is precluded from advertising for non-union workers or bringing in day laborers for jobs. While there’s no problem finding apprentice workers the more experienced journeymen are in short supply.

“As soon as the snow melted, they were gone,” Holden said.

Another issue is that it appears fewer people are going into the trades, preferring instead to go to college for training in a white-collar profession, Faul said. Guidance counselors and parents, she said, tend to steer students away from construction, viewing it as a less-desirable path to employment.

An April National Association of Home Builders survey found that of the 18- to 25-year-olds surveyed who said they knew what career they wanted to pursue, only 3 percent said they wanted to go into the construction trades. At the same time 63 percent of those surveyed who didn’t know what profession they wanted, said they wouldn’t consider a career in construction.

While Faul readily acknowledges the construction industry can be hard work, she said it also is a viable career path that offers both growth and good wages.

Plumbers and electricians, she said, average almost $55,000 a year nationally, while heating-ventilation-air-conditioning technicians earn an average pay of almost $47,000 annually. And they’re job fields experiencing growth that do not require racking up mountains of student debt to get into, she said.

Perry Technical Institute is trying to help students find that path. It recently began offering training in the construction trades in 2016 in response to the need. Its first class of 13 students is expected to graduate in September, said Associate Dean of Education Jason Lamiquiz.

“I’m expecting almost 100 percent of them to be placed,” Lamiquiz said. Perry Tech’s program concentrates on residential and commercial construction, mainly in the area of carpentry, Lamiquiz said.

One of those students is Carlos Angeles, a 41-year-old Yakima student who is working as an “extern” at the school, spending one to two days a week working with a contractor.

Angeles said he has a passion for construction and had done some work on his own property. But breaking into the industry requires working from the bottom up, and Angeles said he could not find a training program at first.

He was among the first to enroll in Perry Tech’s program, which he said has given him advanced skills such as reading blueprints, concrete construction and coming up with cost estimates for jobs, as well as a chance to work on real-world projects through his externship with Terrace Heights-based Artisan Inc. He’s also worked with Habitat for Humanity.

“This is something I wanted to do,” Angeles said.

But despite the shortage, Faul and Holden said contractors are still getting work done, although it sometimes involves delays and having to plan in advance to make sure there’s enough people and materials available.