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Carpenters, skilled laborers in short supply around Waco

Carpenters, skilled laborers in short supply around Waco

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David Pembleton, a general superintendent for Barsh Construction, said he gladly would take the next 10 skilled carpenters who knocked on the door of his trailer parked on Lake Brazos, where crews are converting the former Lake Brazos Bar & Grill into Manny’s Uptown Tex-Mex Restaurante.

He’s hurting for skilled hammer wielders, despite a sign on site stating the company is actively hiring.

“We need to frame up the building itself and build a 6,000-square-foot deck,” Pembleton said. “We need help, but it’s hard to find.”

Pembleton said more than half of those who call themselves carpenters really are laborers without true carpentry skills.

“They can push a wheelbarrow or dig a ditch, but they would be lost if you told them to read a framing square,” he said.

He said the shortage of skilled craftsmen spreads across many job descriptions, adding that “concrete finishers are like gold.”

Barsh pays experienced carpenters $13 to $14 an hour, while those with a few rough edges fetch $10 to $12.

The Waco-based company is lead contractor on the conversion, which is a project of Brazos River Partners and co-owner Rick Sheldon, who plan to pump $180 million in riverfront improvements between downtown and Interstate 35, including restaurants, a movie theater and housing directly across the river from the new Manny’s.

Manny’s could represent the first piece of the development meant to complement Baylor University’s new $260 million McLane Stadium at Interstate 35 and Lake Brazos.

Pembleton said about 12 or 15 people are now working on the restaurant, which Sheldon hopes to have complete when Baylor plays its first game in its new facility on Aug. 31.

“That number probably will nearly double as we get further along and need electricians and others,” Pembleton said.

Stadium project

K. Paul Holt, president and CEO of the local office of the Associated General Contractors of America, said the stadium is partly responsible for the shortage of skilled laborers.

“It is a once-in-a-lifetime project in our market, and they are working on a tight timeline, so they are going to secure all the resources they can,” Holt said, noting that at last count, 850 construction workers were employed at the stadium site. “But it also is a project creating a lot of well-paying jobs, so we can’t be throwing stones at that.”

Meanwhile, the boom in the oil patch serves as a statewide factor possibly affecting local worker availability, as a new generation of wildcatters, engineers and would-be oil barons descend on such West Texas outposts as Midland, Odessa and Snyder, where new shale-drilling technology is producing fortunes.

“Welders are making $60 to $80 an hour; carpenters, at least $20 to $30 an hour,” said Holt, noting that blue-collar types from around the state have noticed.

The boom has created an economy of its own, according to published reports, with motels that previously charged low single-digit rates now demanding $300 a night.

Tate Christensen, president of Barsh Construction, said he has heard that a developer wanting to proceed with a non-energy-related construction project in Midland probably would see help wanted ads ignored — “but I’m not ready to say we’re seeing a shortage of workers in Waco, Texas, because of big times in the oil patch.”

He said Waco is enjoying a boom of its own, with development downtown and along Lake Brazos, construction of the new stadium and plans by such developers as Dallas-based Leon Capital Group to place a mixed-use center at South Valley Mills Drive and Interstate 35, where the old University High School was demolished.

“The stadium represents a big stone in a little pond, and its ripples will mean additional construction for years to come,” Christensen said.

LuAnne Butler, current president of the Heart of Texas Builders Association, said the shortage of carpenters and other skilled laborers, “is being felt statewide.”

“It’s really hard right now to find licensed plumbers and electricians or experienced carpenters,” said Butler, director of construction and design for Woody Butler Homes.

She said the Texas Builders Association believes more must be done at the high school level to interest students in a career in commercial or residential construction.

Family business

“In years past, construction was considered a family business, and children were expected to continue the tradition, but not so much anymore,” said Butler, whose parents, Woody and Pam, own Woody Butler Homes and represent a second generation of homebuilders in Central Texas.

Butler said carpenters can make a good living and support their families, “as those who have worked for us for years have proven.”

“An aggressive crew can frame up a house in a week or a little longer, depending on its size, and make $9,000 to $10,000 doing it,” Butler said.

She said that a framing job includes erecting the walls, installing rafters and decking, applying cornices and installing doors and windows.

She said Woody Butler Homes typically pays its carpenters and other tradesmen by the job and not necessarily by the hour.

Fortunately, more high school students are seeing carpentry, plumbing and electrical work as promising fields, said Jerome Mendias Sr., department chair for building construction science technology at Texas State Technical College.

He said it is attracting about 100 students at any given time, and about half want to land a hands-on job such as carpentry in the building construction field, while the balance are pursuing supervisory positions within the trades.

“We hear all the time about the shortages in the skilled trades, and we believe we have begun to make a difference,” Mendias said.

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