Workers with Cianbro construction guide a steel beam into place atop a Commercial Street hotel building site in Portland in March at the start of the pandemic in Maine. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Pandemic-induced project delays and postponements have hurt construction companies in Maine and across the nation, spotlighting the need for more federal help and additional workforce development strategies, a recent industry report found.

Even though 12 of the 16 Maine companies that answered a national survey said scheduled projects were postponed or canceled and 44 percent of projects underway were halted during the pandemic, there’s still high demand for both salaried and hourly craft positions that is difficult to fill, according to a study released last Wednesday by the Associated General Contractors of America and Autodesk.

“Ironically, even as the pandemic undermines demand for construction services, it is reinforcing conditions that have historically made it hard for many firms to find qualified craft workers to hire,” Ken Simonson, chief economist for the contractors’ association, said.

All but two of the Maine companies polled said it’s difficult to find people to fill hourly craft positions, notably for laborers, truck drivers, carpenters and mechanics. Half said it’s hard to find salaried workers, especially project managers and engineers. The companies range in size from less than $10 million to more than $500 million in sales and from one to 500 or more employees.

In Maine, 10 of the 16 companies said they increased pay for both craft and salaried workers and a quarter gave bonuses or other incentives to attract or keep people. Six of the companies engaged in career-building programs and the same percentage initiated or increased spending on training and professional development, including online.

Three Maine companies said the pandemic caused them to furlough employees, but one-third later recalled furloughed or terminated employees. Another six said they added employees.

More than 36,000 construction workers, or a little more than 5 percent of Maine’s employed workforce, held jobs at close to 5,700 businesses in the third quarter of 2019, according to the Maine Department of Labor. The $2.4 billion industry contributed 3.7 percent of Maine’s gross domestic product in 2018, according to the association’s Maine chapter.

On the wish list of contractors if Congress takes further action to stem the pandemic’s economic fallout are larger federal investment in all kinds of public infrastructure and facilities projects, funding for direct federal construction projects to offset losses from other project delays or shutdowns and funding for state departments of transportation to help prevent project delays.

Stephen Sandherr, the association’s CEO, said there is a lot Washington officials can do to help boost demand for construction projects, and the association is pushing Congress and the administration to enact new recovery measures. They could create new middle-class jobs and rebuild infrastructure, Sandherr said.

“The challenge is that the coronavirus has put many contractors in the position of looking for work and workers at the same time,” he said.

Still, almost half of Maine companies polled said they already have returned to or exceeded the business level they had one year prior to the pandemic. The remainder expect to recover in six months or they didn’t know when.