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Optimistic 2018 construction forecast tempered by worker shortage

By Malena Carollo, Times Staff Writer
Published: January 3, 2018 Updated: January 3, 2018 at 05:23 PM
The construction industry is expected to continue to grow in 2018, but Florida construction firms face issues of worker shortages and outside competition. Pictured are construction workers at the Duke Energy Florida natural gas plant in Crystal River. [MONICA HERNDON | Times file photo]

Month after month, one of the brightest spots on already-sunny employment reports has been construction figures. The industry is well on its way to recovering from the massive hit it took with the 2008 recession. And with significant development going on around the state ó and a handful of multi-million- and billion-dollar projects in Tampa Bay alone ó industry experts anticipate a strong year for the field.

"Construction firms appear to be very optimistic about 2018 as they expect demand for all types of construction services to continue to expand," Stephen Sandherr, CEO of the trade group Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), said during an industry outlook discussion Wednesday afternoon.

Tampa Bay has become a hub of construction in recent years, home to major ongoing and upcoming developments. Water Street Tampa, the $3 billion downtown transformation led by philanthropist Jeff Vinik and Cascade Investment, is underway, and Nova Southeastern Universityís new multi-million-dollar Clearwater campus, funded by philanthropist Kiran Patel, is set to begin construction this year.

Projects like these are part of the reason construction added the most jobs over the year in Florida ó 41,800 ó as of November, the most recent employment figures from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. And that number may grow in 2018, as 75 percent of construction companies expect to hire in the coming year, according to AGC.

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Nationally, commercial construction spending hit $719.2 billion in November, up just under a percent from October, according to builders and contractors group.

But it wonít be completely smooth sailing. A major issue Florida construction faces this year is the performance of its current workforce. Many construction employees today lack the experience and training that past generations had, which requires more on-the-job instruction. This can delay projects and even cause safety issues.

"Thereís a lot more training thatís going on as far as keeping (workers) safe and the public safe," said Bob Schafer, president of West Palm Beachís Ranger Construction. Schafer spoke on the Associated General Contractors of Americaís call.

The root of the issue isnít new ó during the 2008 recession, many construction workers abandoned the field for more stable work, never returning. This left a gap in the workforce that the industry is still working to remedy.

Exacerbating that worker shortage, Schafer said, is competition from foreign businesses. Schaferís firm has noticed foreign construction outfits moving into the local construction space recently. Those firms will need to hire workers, which will further stretch the pool of available qualified workers.

"Itís adding to the workforce shortage we have," Schafer said.

Contact Malena Carollo at [email protected] or (727) 892-2249. Follow @malenacarollo.