Dodging Housing Bust, Commercial Construction Faces Separate Issues

By Beacon Staff

The gathering in a convention room at Kalispell’s Red Lion Inn last week was in many ways an anomaly: young workers in an industry with an aging workforce struggling to find more people just like them. The Young Constructors Forum, part of the Montana Contractors Association, is a group of managers under age 40 for commercial construction firms responsible for some of the largest projects in the state, including roads, bridges, and schools. While commercial contractors have managed to dodge many of the problems plaguing the residential market, the young constructors have their own set of issues.

Chief among the concerns are the location of increasingly controversial gravel pits: The farther a construction firm has to haul gravel, the more expensive it becomes, yet no one wants to live next door to a gravel pit. Healthcare costs inflate annually at double-digit rates, and a construction site is a more hazardous workplace than a cubicle. Environmental regulation of stormwater runoff and erosion has grown more stringent over the years, resulting in cleaner water but more expensive mitigation measures. And while Montana lacks the large number of foreign workers found in other states, the potential exists for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, with ramifications for the construction industry.

Last but not least, contractors attribute their workforce shortage to an image problem. “There’s a misperception and it starts in our schools,” said Derek Swank, president of Swank Enterprises and the outgoing president of the MCA, “that jobs in our industry are for people who aren’t smart enough to go to college.”

The group of 17 young men, and one woman, making up the YCF refutes many of the stereotypes regarding construction workers, the construction slowdown over sub-prime mortgage worries, and the lack of high-paying jobs in the Flathead and beyond.

According to Shawn Baker, the incoming chair of YCF and a project manager for Swank Enterprises in Valier, the commercial construction market is not taking the hit that residential is suffering, “It’s slow but it’s definitely not as bad for us.” Many businesses in the MCA clear $2 million to $3 million a year.

“The heavy market is very, very, very tied into federal funding,” Baker said. “It seems like we are very much a one- to two-year lag behind the residential market.”

And as for decent jobs, many skilled college graduates can land positions making $50,000 to $60,000 a year in construction.

“There’s a huge number of jobs in the trades,” Baker added. “People don’t realize.”

At 24, Jon Jordan is fighting stereotypes about the typical construction worker as the youngest member of the management team at Sandry Construction in Bigfork, the firm that handled the emergency construction on Glacier Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road. Jordan graduated from the University of Montana in January 2007 with degrees in environmental studies and geography, but spent his summers laboring for Sandry before landing a job. “There are certainly jobs available, you just have to be willing to work; to get to this position you have to be in the trenches,” Jordan said. “You can’t expect to walk into a position.”

As a young member of the management team, Jordan treads lightly around older workers who may chafe at taking orders from a kid, so when he has a suggestion for a project he works through other managers to enact the change.

Like Jordan, Jason Campbell, an estimator for Schellinger Construction in Columbia Falls, has a college degree. Campbell, 27, planned on studying civil engineering at Montana State University, but said he “didn’t like all the desk time.” He graduated in 2003 with a degree in construction engineering, and his current position entails determining the scope and price of proposed jobs. As someone who spends the brunt of his time working on residential driveways, Campbell said the battle to open up gravel pits is becoming more of a struggle every year.

As MCA president, Swank grappled with that very problem, and believes it’s going to remain an overriding issue facing his industry. Just as it has become necessary to make young people more aware of the jobs available in the industry, so it has also become imperative that the public understands how essential gravel pits are to commercial construction.

“Everything that happens in our industry relies on gravel,” Swank added. “Gravel pits, while they’re not the prettiest things in the world, they’re not going to ruin your life.”