Ask the Expert: Montana Contractors Association Executive Director David Smith

The construction industry expert answers questions about the workforce shortage, supply chain disruptions and outdated infrastructure

By Maggie Dresser
Road construction. Beacon File Photo

As executive director of the Montana Contractors Association, David Smith works with contractors across the state on heavy civil construction, water treatment infrastructure and commercial projects, which in recent years have been beset by a range of economic challenges. Even as the tight workforce, high interest rates and a rising cost of construction continue to pose complications for his members, causing a backlog of projects, Smith said contractors are finding creative solutions.

The following is an excerpt from the Beacon’s conversation with Smith that has been edited for clarity.

How are construction companies working to recruit and retain employees as the workforce shortage remains tight?

Right now, we are creating 210 carpenters per year in the state through apprenticeships, but we need 670 per year. So, that’s one component. Another is wages have increased and the median wage is now $65,000. We’re trying to get into high schools and engage young people’s minds about construction. It’s cold and scary sometimes, but it’s safe and there’s good money to be made — a lot of contractors are going into colleges and getting engineers out of Montana Tech and Montana State.

What are some of the highest priority construction projects?

I think one of the biggest concerns is infrastructure and being able to keep up with those projects. Once a week, there’s something in the news about Somers or Lakeside or Evergreen having septic or water challenges. Now there are forever chemicals to deal with … the whole infrastructure conundrum is big. There’s also the bridge in Bigfork — we thought we were taking care of bridges through the years but we really weren’t. At a certain point, they aren’t safe to drive on and there’s bridges that have just collapsed. And on a lot of rural county bridges, there’s a weight limit.

It’s all coming together in a perfect storm — you have sewer lines under streets that are 100 years old; you have growth that’s causing demand for more water treatment; and there are bridges in need of repair. Meanwhile, you need the widening of Reserve Street. It’s the unseen infrastructure.

What’s causing construction delays?

On the commercial side of things, on certain types of projects, if an owner is in the planning stages — they’ve identified land, partners and contractors — in the last three years, the inflation has increased the material cost drastically and at the same time, interest rates have gone up.

There are other things, too, as far as materials and supply. I don’t’ want to go out on a limb with the issue today, because tomorrow it might be different. Right now, one thing we’re hearing is there’s an electrical component shortage. A year-and-a-half ago, it was interior door frames. It could be anything at any different time. A lot of times, factories are just not producing as fast as they used to.