Fewer construction jobs, but students’ interest strong

Local construction workers pondered their own futures Tuesday as they helped prepare the next generation of contractors.

Four hundred eighth-graders from Orchard Mesa and Grand Mesa middle schools spent the day roaming among 38 booths spread around the Mesa County Fairgrounds during the second annual Western Colorado Construction Career Day. Students spent 20 minutes at a time with up to seven businesses from across the construction career spectrum. Students learned everything from how to build walls and install windows to operating machinery and financing building projects.

Changes in the construction industry mean there is more to teach about the industry but fewer job opportunities in 2009. Construction, mining and logging employment in Grand Junction has decreased from 10,300 in 2008 to 9,300 in 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In addition, construction jobs that didn’t require much post-secondary education when Keith Pettingill, a drywall foreman with FCI Constructors, began a construction career in the 1960s now require highly skilled and educated workers.

“Everything is done with a computer now,” he said.

A change in educational demands for construction jobs has led to a shortage of skilled workers, Pettingill said. Through either retirement or companies’ inability to train people on the job, Western Colorado Community College construction technology professor Rick Leonard predicts there will be more job openings in construction by the time students at the career day are old enough to attend his classes.

“Construction jobs will come back,” he said. “Blue-collar jobs will come back before white-collar jobs.”

The need for new buildings, especially for post-recession “green” (environmentally conscious) jobs, will help shepherd in that early comeback, Leonard said.

Pettingill said he isn’t so sure the rebound is coming. In fact, these may be the good days, he said. Grand Junction still has more construction and mining jobs than Pueblo, Boulder or Fort Collins, despite having a smaller population than all of those cities, and FCI just began some projects last week.

Pettingill said the process of bidding on a job, winning the bid and preparing for construction can take up to two years, meaning those jobs he started on last week may have been sparked as long ago as late 2007.

“It has not affected us yet,” he said of the slowdown that has more heavily affected construction on the Front Range.

When asked whether there are many jobs in the construction industry available, City of Fruita maintenance worker Gary Link replied, “No. It’s slow.”

Link said he’s keeping busy along with his municipal colleagues, but he has less faith building and home constructors are in the same position. He said his once-hefty stack of requests to clean new sewer lines in developing subdivisions has thinned significantly with fewer new homes being built.

The most difficult part of construction these days is the number of bidders and job applicants, Link said.

“Competition is the hardest thing because there’s so many out there,” he said.

Rising above the competition has rarely been more important, according to Leonard. He oversees a two-year program that can be a transition into a four-year construction management program at Mesa State College. One of the things he teaches is how to save money and put in an efficient bid.

“You can lose a bid on $200 or $300 now. A few years ago it was $2,000 or $3,000,” he said. “The more you learn how to maximize a dollar, the better.”

The pressures of the job market were mostly lost on the middle-school students as they ran around in lime-green shirts and hard hats. Joanna Newton, Kuria Smith and Roberto Monarrez said they enjoyed the day and hope to follow in their parents’ footsteps and work in construction some day. Each said they plan to take a design class to help them prepare for their future careers. Although they’re not sure exactly which construction field to pursue, Smith said she had a favorite after testing out some machinery Tuesday.

“So far I like the crane,” she said.


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