Shortage of construction workers could hurt Polk County homebuilders

Between the COVID-19 pandemic and the Great Recession, downturns in the construction industry led to a decade of lost opportunities to train workers, leaving a generation gap between construction workers taking their retired and those who have just been trained.

Polk County’s labor shortage in the homebuilding industry also comes at a time when approvals for hundreds of new housing units are adding up at breakneck speed.

According to Mike Hickman, president of Hickman Homes, there is a shortage of skilled and entry-level construction labor, which is pushing home construction timelines to a year or more per home.

“During this recessionary period that we had in the late 2000s, we saw a lot of people leave the industry and go into other things,” he said. “Then with COVID it’s kind of a double whammy; where people have retired and left the workforce.

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“So we’ve literally missed a decade of professional training for people in the industry and it’s really coming home.” He added: ‘We just don’t have the manpower to keep up with the level of construction that has taken place in recent years and the demand. There is a housing shortage in all areas.

According to Gary Ralston, managing partner of SVN Saunders Ralston Dantzler Realty, the population of Polk County increased by 3.9% between April 1, 2021 and July 1, with Lake and Osceola counties seeing an increase of more than 3% .

Paige Hancock cuts a panel on a panel saw while students work on construction-type assignments in a woodworking/construction class at ACE Academy at Bartow High School in Bartow Fl. Wednesday, August 31, 2022. Bartow High School Academy trains students to fill construction jobs when there is a shortage of workers.  Labor Day report on shortage of construction workers and efforts to add skilled workers.  Ernst Peters/The Big Book

In comparison, the population of the state of Florida grew by 1.1% and in the United States people were added at a rate of 0.1% during the same period examined in the recent analysis of the residential demand from Ralston. Building permits reflected growth in the number of new residents with the following permits issued by county: Lake 4,505, Osceola 10,003 and Polk 13,071. In Florida, 213,494 permits were issued and in the United States 1,736,982 .

Since 1985, Hickman Homes has built more than 690 homes in Central Florida, according to its website. Many of the sons and daughters of the company’s early workers replaced their parents at work, which turned out to be a fortunate situation for the Lakeland homebuilder.

“We’re kept a core group, but they’ve been stretched,” Hickman said.

His work as a founding member of the Polk County Builders Association Foundation helped him recruit the rest of his team.

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The foundation has supported the academies with field trips, mentorships, and guest speakers since 2004. The group also supports Future Builders of America clubs at Polk high schools.

The recent rise in mortgage interest rates has not dampened the demand for homes to be built in Polk County.

Using data from Florida Realtors, Ralson said the median sale price for a home in Polk was $335,000. By comparison, the median price in Florida is $410,000. Those numbers are up significantly from December, when the median price for a Polk home was $308,000 and $373,990 in Florida.

During the same period, mortgage interest rates for a 30-year loan rose from 3.35% to 5.25%.

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A new generation of students to be trained in the field of construction

Hickman, meanwhile, called Polk County Schools’ construction academies a “bright spot” because the four-year program introduces a new generation of students to training in the construction field.

Teacher Jimmy Giles runs Bartow High School ACE Academy, a four-year high school program in architecture, construction, and engineering. Through ACE, students learn entry-level skills for construction workers through college prep courses.

Students at the university often enter construction management programs and the ME Rinker, Sr. School of Construction Management at the University of Florida.

Tyler Hicks Hannah Deese and Paige Hancock sand strips of wood for a cabinet while students work on construction type jobs in a woodworking/construction class at ACE Academy at Bartow High School in Bartow FL.  Wednesday August 31, 2022. Bartow High School Academy trains students to fill construction jobs in the event of a labor shortage.  Labor Day report on shortage of construction workers and efforts to add skilled workers.  Ernst Peters/The Big Book

The ACE program isn’t like the middle and high school wood or metal shop classes offered in the 1970s for students to take as an elective, Giles said. It’s called Bartow’s state-of-the-art academy.

Giles, who started with the district as a maintenance worker with cabinetmaking skills, had filled in for a retired shop teacher at the request of a principal who wanted a program that launched students on a career in the construction industry and not just teaching a single skill such as woodworking, he said.

The academy, which has expanded to several schools in the district, offers students the opportunity to attend their local school where they can play on a soccer team or participate in local extracurricular activities if they wish, while gaining construction training and experience.

This school year, Giles’ students are building a tiny house out of a shipping container and kitchen cabinets. The house will be sold to raise funds for scholarships, he said.

“We usually do one kitchen a year and the last two kitchens we’ve done have gone to a $300,000 house,” he said.

Silas Prescott cuts holes for door hinges while students work on construction type jobs in a woodworking/construction class at ACE Academy at Bartow High School in Bartow FL.  Wednesday August 31, 2022. Bartow High School Academy trains students to fill construction jobs in the event of a labor shortage.  Labor Day report on shortage of construction workers and efforts to add skilled workers.  Ernst Peters/The Big Book

Giles is not only proud of the products of his student work, but of their propensity to earn degrees in the field.

“Probably the biggest success we’re having at Bartow right now is students getting into construction management,” he said.

Two women who recently graduated from the Rinker program are alumni of Bartow Academy, Giles said. The high school has between six and eight more students currently in college. He also noted that about 50% of his students are girls compared to a majority of boys just five years ago.

One of Bartow’s many academy graduates is Jessica Whittington, 32, of Bartow, who works at Hickman Homes. She has 16 years of experience in construction, engineering and development.

She started in the construction department of Bartow, issuing permits. About the academy and reminiscing about building camps over the summers, she said, “It’s awesome.”

In July, employment across the country in the construction industry added more jobs than expected with 32,000 from a year earlier, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Overall employment in the construction industry is up 4.2% from 2021, according to an analysis of Associated Builders and Contractors. In total, there are 311,000 more jobs in July over the year.

Paul Nutcher can be contacted at [email protected]

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