PORTLAND, Maine — In the pit of the recession, residential construction and woodworking company M.R. Brewer experienced its first layoffs since opening two decades earlier.
Facing much better times, the company has a less jarring problem this year: finding the right employees to hire.
As construction demand returns, builders nationwide expect to have difficulty hiring. A survey from the national Associated General Contractors of America found 72 percent of respondents planned to hire in the next year, and a 2014 survey in Maine found unfilled construction jobs the second-most abundant job openings that employers deemed “difficult to fill,” after openings in health care and social services.
Matt Brewer, construction manager at M.R. Brewer, said the company has enough work now to support another team leader to oversee residential projects, most of which are renovations or additions.
“We’re at the point where we’re turning down work,” Brewer said.
The company boosted revenue by about 20 percent last year, to a little more than $6 million, Brewer said, and its headcount has grown to 23, up from 16 three years ago.
The company has had an opening in its spray room for about a year, he said. Rusty Brewer, Matt Brewer’s father and founder of the company, was doing that work earlier this week, as the company held off on making a hire.
Across Maine and the country, the recession vastly thinned the field of construction companies that are, slowly but surely, seeing more work in a recovering economy. Residential construction is a sliver of that.
Early last year, employment at residential construction firms grew by about 8 percent from two years earlier.
Federal employment data show from the second quarter of 2010 to the second quarter of 2015 — the most recent data available — that residential construction firms in Cumberland County were basically flat while employment grew 12.7 percent, to an average of 881 for the months of April to June.
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That’s not the case everywhere in the state for that microcosm of the construction industry and that bellwether for the broader economy, indicating spending on residential improvements or new construction.
Sagadahoc County is the major outlier, with residential construction employment at pre-recession levels. Job totals for that subsector of the construction industry, by county, are small but reflect general trends coming out of the recession. Matt Brewer said his mother, the company’s chief financial officer, had predicted as much.
“My mother always told us that if we can keep our head up and make it through it that we’ll be more successful in the end,” Brewer said.
Cumberland and York counties, which have the largest number of residential construction firms in Maine, lost about 15 percent of those employers through the recession.
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Hope Perkins, president and CEO at the Maine chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, said M.R. Brewer’s experience is shared.
“We have members in every trade, and they’re all extremely busy now,” Perkins said.
She and Brewer agree the situation leaves employees with the right skills more options than before. Average weekly wages at residential construction firms have started to edge up slightly in recent quarters.
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Brewer said he doesn’t have immediate answers to what the industry has deemed a current and looming workforce shortage, but he finds something of an answer in his own story, finding algebra easier to apply when building a truss at a vocational high school than scribbling on paper.
“I try to live by that phrase that it’s not how smart are you but how are you smart,” he said.
But getting out of a traditional high school wasn’t easy, he said, and he thinks vocational high school should be a clearer option for younger students.
“I think it has to start at a very young age to highlight that the trades are a great place to work,” Brewer said.
That’s a point the industry’s making at the national level, too. The Associated General Contractors issued a workforce development plan last year that seeks to address a “series of policy, education, demographic and economic factors that have decimated the once robust education pipeline for training new construction workers,” including a recommendation for more funding for vocational high schools.
The association raises concern that shortages in construction could have ripple effects through the economy if they lead to construction delays, cost overruns and potentially fewer bidders on major projects.
“Understaffed construction firms may be more hesitant to bid on new projects knowing they lack the manpower to complete the work on schedule,” the AGC’s workforce plan states. “With fewer bidders competing for work, owners are likely to spend more for the projects.”