Alaska construction labor shortage expected to get worse

Posted: Thursday, February 17, 2005

Brought on by the field's growth and an aging work force, thousands of jobs in Alaska's construction industry could go unfilled — or be filled with untrained or inexperienced workers — over the next eight years.

Construction of a natural gas pipeline and other giant projects in Alaska could further exacerbate the shortage.

"We're in a crisis," said Mike Andrews, director of Alaska Works Partnership. "Without crying wolf, what we are trying to say is if we had a four-plex, one unit is on fire and if we don't do anything another unit will catch on fire, too."

Since 1998, the Alaska Workforce Investment Board has provided policy oversight of state and federally funded job training and vocational education programs, and has determined how training funds are distributed to different training providers across the state, said executive director Mona McAleese.

The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development and AWIB jointly sponsored an construction summit in Anchorage in January with the Associated General Contractors of Alaska and the Alaska Works Partnership, a nonprofit corporation representing all of Alaska's building and construction trade unions and their federally registered apprenticeship and training programs.

Dick Cattanach, executive director of the AGC of Alaska, told summit attendees that about 2,000 people need to be trained each year between 2002 and 2012 in construction-related occupations to meet the industry's employment needs forecasted by state labor economists.

Over the last couple of years, an average of 1,000 people were trained as electricians, roofers and truck drivers among other construction-related occupations, leaving a gap of about 1,000 people needed to be trained, Cattanach said.

"There's a huge training task in front of us," he said.

The industry's training needs are in large part due to its growth and the large number of construction workers retiring by 2012, according to Cattanach.

In the carpentry occupation alone, the demand for carpenters statewide is expected to increase by nearly 14 percent, or about 660 new jobs, from 2002 to 2012, according to data compiled by state labor economists.

On top of the occupation's growth, more than 1,100 carpenters are expected to retire during the same period. Some 180 new carpenters would have to be employed each year between 2002 and 2012 to meet the state's foreseen demand, Cattanach said.

He cautioned that the forecast of needing to train about 2,000 workers annually may be too conservative. For one, while the forecast incorporated the average demand for workers over the life of the potential gas pipeline's construction, the estimate does not address periods during the construction when a large number of trained workers would be needed.

David MacDowell, BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc.'s director of external affairs, told attendees of the summit that more than 7,000 people could be needed to build the pipeline during the peak phase of construction in Alaska. The 2,000-trainee estimate also does not include any additional training needs originating from Gov. Frank Murkowski's 90 percent Alaska-hire initiative, Andrews said.

Some construction-related occupations employ nonresidents at rates exceeding 30 percent. Nearly 110 of Alaska's 285 structural iron and steel workers, or about 38 percent, are nonresidents, according to state labor economists.

Andrews said that decreasing the number of nonresidents working in construction-related fields would require training more Alaskans each year than the 2,000-trainee figure presented by Cattanach.

Among the challenges facing the construction industry are securing funding for additional classroom-based training, increasing the number of registered apprentice programs and recruiting more Alaskans to join the construction field, according to attendees of construction summit.

The attendees proposed several recommendations for AWIB, including evaluating ways that other state and local governments have increased the number of hours apprentices work on publicly funded construction projects and developing a strategic plan to meet the employment needs of the gas pipeline's potential construction.

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