Officials: construction labor shortage won't affect Georgetown-area project completions

The Southwest Bypass will continue from Leander Road to I-35 when completed in 2020. (Community Impact Newspaper staff)
The Southwest Bypass will continue from Leander Road to I-35 when completed in 2020. (Community Impact Newspaper staff)

The Southwest Bypass will continue from Leander Road to I-35 when completed in 2020. (Community Impact Newspaper staff)

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Image description
Even as Central Texas continues to face a shortage in construction labor, Williamson County and Georgetown ISD officials say they are confident bond projects will be completed in a timely manner.

Data from the Texas Workforce Commission finds that of the 59 job titles labeled construction or architecture in the Greater Austin area, 42 occupations have more workers than jobs available.

But President of Associated General Contractors Austin chapter Phil Thoden said that is not the case on the ground.

"[Workforce shortages are] one of the top challenges for the construction industry,” Thoden said. “In Austin, there is a lot of work going on, so there is a very high demand.”

According to an Associated General Contractors of America study released in August, 80% of construction firms reported having a hard time filling hourly craft positions, which represents the bulk of the construction workforce.

Scott Stites, educational facilities market leader for Bartlett Cocke General Contractors, said he, too, has seen the effects of fewer workers. Stites said his primary focus is to erect or renovate school buildings, including the two new GISD elementary schools that plan to open in the fall. Hundreds of hands can touch a construction project, particularly when creating a building from the ground up, Stites said.

He added that at any given time there could be as many as 200 people on a construction site for a new school construction. But because schools have to be open on time for the new school year, he has seen new strategies develop, including the hiring of multiple subcontractors to complete one job.

For example, Stites said he has had subcontractors say they cannot complete an entire project on time with their current workforce, but they can complete half of the job. Therefore, the work is shared between two or more subcontractors to ensure the job gets done on schedule. “It’s counter-intuitive in a sense, but it really worked,” Stites said. “Now [subcontractors] can adequately staff and schedule people.”

Low workforce implications

Thoden and Stites said workforce shortages can have real implications on project schedules and costs, which get passed down to the owners of the building.
In bonds, taxpayers are the owners.

Stites said he finds a big part of his job is to manage owner expectations. And while inflation is always a factor in cost estimations, Stites said that inflation costs for construction materials such as concrete, steel and copper has remained consistent.

County and district officials said they tack on anticipated inflation costs to projects throughout the process to present accurate totals to voters.

But the real effect on project pricing is competing wages.

When there is a limited supply of workers, managers have to recruit harder with higher wages and better hours, Stites said.

“Our biggest price pressure is really driven by labor,” Stites said. “If you’re in plumbing and you need plumbers, you’ve got to offer them more money than the guy you are competing with to get [the worker] to change and come to your company.”

Thoden added that while a low workforce, or fewer workers than jobs available, can place a burden on the owner, it allows for higher wages and overtime pay for the workers. He added that he is hopeful for a larger workforce in the long term as school districts and organizations are consciously adding trade-skill courses to their school catalogs.

“If there’s one thing that's true, there are always things being built, so there are always opportunities for a career in the construction industry,” Thoden said.

Bond updates

Increasing growth in Central Texas, particularly in Williamson County and GISD, has led to two bonds passing—one by the district in November 2018 for $150.5 million, and recently by the county Nov. 5 for $447 million with $412 million devoted to road construction.

The county road bond passed with 62.46% approval and is expected to complete at least 13 road and safety projects. The district bond passed with 62.98% approval and plans to complete 12 projects.

Bob Daigh, senior director of infrastructure for the county, said while the labor shortage was recognized when planning for the bond, he said it did not influence which projects the county selected to be completed nor did he believe it would impact the timeline.

"Engineering manpower at this time is scarce, but we believe there to be sufficient capacity in the Central Texas market to be able to address the projects in Williamson County,” Daigh said.

David Biesheuvel, GISD executive director of Construction and Development, agreed, adding that at the end of the day the district is growing, and added capacity is needed.

Both Daigh and Biesheuvel said it is or would be the responsibility of the construction companies and contractors to ensure they had the labor force to complete the projects and not up to the entities.

Daigh added that as part of the initial requests for qualifications—a process where firms present why they should be given the contract—the county requires firms to display whether they would have adequate labor availability to complete the project. Daigh also said a significant portion of the firms selected will have offices in Williamson County, and 100% of them will have offices in Central Texas.

“This work will be conducted predominately by folks that live in Williamson and Travis counties,” Daigh said. “That’s not to say there will be some expertise brought in from Houston or Dallas, but this effort will be conducted predominately by Central Texas [workers].”

Thoden said he has seen the decline in the construction workforce for years if not decades. But while it may take longer for projects to be completed, he has not seen any projects not get built because of labor.

“Meeting aggressive schedules is very difficult just because of the workforce shortage,” Thoden said. “It might take them a longer time, but they’re still being built.”
By Ali Linan

Ali Linan began covering Georgetown for Community Impact Newspaper in 2018. Her reporting focuses on education and Williamson County. Ali hails from El Paso and graduated from Syracuse University in 2017.


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