A growing, strong economy and an infusion of money for roads in Georgia over the past few years sounds like a good combination, but it’s causing a headache for highway contractors.
“As employment continues to rise for everyone, finding workers for what we do can be tougher and tougher,” said David Moellering, executive director of the Georgia Highway Contractors Association.
The problem is one that has crossed several business sectors: A bountiful job supply has workers skipping between jobs for higher pay — a trend that’s good for the worker but a stiff challenge for companies trying to fill the ranks.
Add in the state legislature’s passage of the Transportation Funding Act of 2015, an adjustment of the gas excise tax to produce $1 billion more in annual revenues, and there’s a sudden boom in state road projects.
The number of construction jobs, including roadbuilding, has increased about 10 percent over the past year, Georgia Department of Labor Commissioner Mark Butler told The Times.
“To put that in perspective, you have had a pretty good year for job growth when you hit 2 ½-3 percent,” he said. “So, that’s a pretty good pace.”
Orange construction barrels can be found throughout Hall County, where workers are building bridges over Lake Lanier and widening roads in South Hall and East Hall, including Lanier Islands Parkway and Athens Highway.
One of Hall’s most noticeable projects is construction of Interstate 985’s new Exit 14, where tens of thousands of drivers are daily watching workers rip into fresh earth, build bridges and put down asphalt.
Putting together crews for that project hasn’t been such a problem, said Minton O'Neal, whose company, G.P.'s Enterprises Inc., is the contractor on the South Hall project.
But there are several potential reasons for that, including that “it’s a fairly compact project,” he said. “It’s fairly easy to staff, given the various number of subcontractors we have on site. Now, if we’re building a 10-mile highway widening, that takes a lot of people.”
Overall, “labor has been hard to find throughout the state,” O’Neal said.
Staffing is such an issue that contractors such as G.P.’s are teaming up with the state contractors association to try to attract workers through a campaign, Fast Lane to Jobs.
“We’re trying to reach out to younger people to let them know that there are alternatives to going into debt in going to college,” O’Neal said. “While we think college is a good thing for the right people, we also think people can make a good living in the transportation industry.”
Brett Johnson of Vertical Earth in Cumming said contractors need many types of workers.
“While some previous construction experience is helpful, for many of the jobs, no experience is required and training is provided on the job,” he said.
“The highway construction industry is one of the few not requiring a high school diploma or college degree. While the work can be difficult, the work is fulfilling, the average pay is high and the opportunities for advancement are numerous. Many of our company managers and executives began as laborers and operators.”
Job openings include asphalt paving workers, asphalt plant operators, concrete laborers, highway bridge carpenters, heavy equipment operators and mechanics, commercial truck drivers and traffic control workers.
The association has created a website to give more information about careers in roadbuilding.
The site includes average salaries, typical career paths and an interactive map showing which highway contractors are hiring in various regions around the state, including Northeast Georgia. The website also features videos and testimonials of construction workers and raises awareness about the many career possibilities for women. There is also a Spanish version of the site.
Concerns about job shortages aren’t just a private sector issue.
The Georgia Department of Labor is helping the Georgia Department of Transportation fill openings. A job fair was just held Sept. 17 in Cornelia for maintenance workers who might be assigned to various locations around the state.
"In order for the Georgia Department of Transportation to address the growing need for maintenance and engineering positions, the department has increased our personnel recruitment presence throughout the state and in our neighboring states as well,” DOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale said.
“The need for these positions is continuous throughout the state. The (DOT) has a staff of recruiters who travel the entire state. Our recruiters are currently attending an average of three to four career events weekly."
Butler said attracting DOT workers is “even more challenging because the state typically doesn’t pay as well as the private sector.”