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Whatcom County has need for qualified construction workers

The number of people in construction jobs in Whatcom County totaled 6,900 in July, up 4.5 percent compared to July 2002.
The number of people in construction jobs in Whatcom County totaled 6,900 in July, up 4.5 percent compared to July 2002. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

While Whatcom County isn’t seeing a construction boom like other parts of the country, contractors are having trouble filling positions for skilled workers.

Job growth for construction in Whatcom County is sluggish when compared to years before the construction/real estate bubble, according to data from the Washington State Employment Security Department.

The number of people in construction jobs in Whatcom County totaled 6,900 in July, up 4.5 percent compared to July 2002. But statewide, the total growth in construction jobs between 2002 and 2015 was 14 percent, said Scott Bailey, a regional labor economist for the state.

Even so, Whatcom County contractors are having trouble finding qualified people for skilled labor positions, said Liz Evans, northern district manager for the Associated General Contractors of Washington.

The higher the degree of skill required, the harder it is to fill, Evans said. One problem is that the workforce is aging and as older workers retire, not enough young people are coming into the construction industry.

Part of the problem goes back to the financial meltdown in 2008. In Washington state, construction was one of the hardest hit industries, shedding jobs in Whatcom County and elsewhere. Many of those workers shifted to other occupations during and after the recession, Bailey said.

“The emphasis on ‘need to go to college to get a good job’ has probably contributed to young people not realizing they can make a good living in construction,” Bailey said.

Construction projects continue to pick up locally, particularly in Bellingham. The City of Bellingham issued permits for projects totaling $131.1 million from January to August of this year, up 7.8 percent compared to the same period in 2015.

For all of 2015, the city issued permits for projects totaling $212.9 million, its second-highest annual total. (The city’s highest annual total was $217.8 million in 2003.)

Yet the Seattle-area market is much more aggressive, Evans said.

“Many of the subcontractors and general contractors in the Whatcom County area work in the King County market and beyond,” Evans said.

The need for trained construction workers is being voiced more often at Bellingham Technical College, said Frank Powers, vice president of instruction. Several of the programs related to construction are popular, including ones for electrical work, geomatics and welding.

“We work closely with industry and advisory boards on evaluating our program mix to provide the community what it needs,” Powers said.

Dave Gallagher: 360-715-2269, @BhamHeraldBiz

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