When economist Christopher Thornberg told a room of Sonoma County business leaders on Nov. 17 that the region would need about 6,300 construction workers annually over the next three years to fully rebuild in the aftermath of the devastating wildfires, there was an audible gasp in the room.
“It was, ‘Oh my god, how are we are going to get that many people?’” said Stephen Jackson, director of college and career readiness for the Sonoma County Office of Education, of the reaction.
Where will contractors get the thousands of workers they’ll need to rebuild all the fire-ravaged homes? Despite new training programs and ways to bring in workers from afar, a worker shortage could mean delays and higher costs.
Even prior to the fires, the industry was struggling to recruit more workers to keep up with a building boom that created jobs for 13,900 workers in Sonoma County for October. The sector will now likely need a boost far beyond that number to rebuild the more than 5,100 destroyed homes in Sonoma County as well as keep up with construction work already planned outside of the fires. The local effort also includes an additional 1,000-plus structures destroyed in Mendocino, Napa and Lake counties.
“We had a real problem of worker shortage before the fires. It has been magnified a hundred times over with the disaster,” said Keith Woods, president and CEO of North Coast Builders Exchange, which represents construction-related firms in the region.
The group is conducting its own survey on workforce needs.
Along with local agencies, the industry has responded with efforts to expedite training for high school students as well as adult education programs so people can quickly enter the workforce. Also being explored is the concept of using workers who might have barriers, such as non-English speakers or a previous criminal conviction. And the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) has ramped up a program that has already provided training to 452 workers for certification in handling hazardous materials, which allows them to participate in removing debris from gutted structures.
But even those efforts are likely not to be enough, and the sector will need to recruit employees from outside the region, possibly in the thousands. That brings up other challenges, such as where these workers will live in the midst of a housing crisis.
“That’s topic A for a lot of people on the rebuild,” Woods said.
Local officials do have a few months to develop a plan because rebuilding will not start to ramp up until late spring at the earliest, he added. Contractors, however, have noted a few workers involved in the recovery efforts are already living temporarily at local campgrounds.
All that outreach still may not be enough, industry officials caution. The consequences of the labor shortage will then be felt throughout the entire community, but especially by displaced residents who will have to wait longer to finally go home and will have to pay more for their new houses as a result of a marketplace where worker wages are expected to rise.
Builders constructed only about 4,200 new single-family homes in the county in the past decade. Longtime Santa Rosa developer Tux Tuxhorn noted the contrast between those results and the pace of construction that the community wants to achieve in the next two years — the time frame when insurance policies will stop paying for temporary rental housing for the displaced.
“It’s absolutely staggering,” Tuxhorn said.
The industry has mostly recovered from the boom and bust of the past 10 years. In August 2006, the construction industry reached a peak with 15,600 workers employed in the county, according to figures from the state Employment Development Department. But by October 2009, during the Great Recession, that level was down to 9,700. It slowly climbed back in the ensuing years, reaching 11,000 in October 2014.
An effect of the recession was that many construction workers left the field — retiring, changing careers or moving out of state. That created a void that has been exacerbated by a trend in high schools to move away from vocational education as part of their core curricula, largely because of budget cuts.
“We’re trying to find some way to expose these kids to this,” said Mike Ghilotti, president of Ghilotti Bros., a San Rafael contractor that is conducting debris cleanup at lots in Santa Rosa where homes once stood.
His company wants to hire from 30 to 50 additional workers next year even before considering bidding on rebuilding work that his firm could perform through such tasks as grading, paving and laying concrete.
There is movement trying to turn the tide. For example, a pilot program sponsored by Santa Rosa-based Career Technical Education (CTE) Foundation to train high school students for a possible career in construction has expanded.
The five-month class covers the basics of electrical wiring, plumbing and carpentry and students can earn certificates in forklift operation and first aid. A two-week boot camp at the end of the program allows them to work on a job site to practice their skills.
Organizers want to recruit at least 30 students during the spring semester, said Kathy Goodacre, executive director of the CTE Foundation.
“We also think we can leverage the passion for young people to get involved in their community,” Goodacre said.
She noted that some high school graduates may not decide to make a career out of the profession, but the work could provide a good middle-class income for those to eventually do something else or go back to college.
There also is a similar program that will be offered next year for adults, one through an expedited course and another 10-week program for those who already work in another field but are considering a career switch, Jackson said.
Given the dire need and a tight job market at a 3.3 percent unemployment rate for the county in October, local officials also are looking to groups that have been traditionally harder to place on the job, such as those with prior criminal convictions, no transportation, or no proficiency in English.
“Many of these folks, regardless of the barriers, they are good workers,” said Jessica Taylor, manager for Job Link, the one-stop job and career center operated by the Sonoma County Workforce Investment Board.
One bright spot has been the regional training programs that have been operated by LIUNA, which ramped up quickly to provide a union-affiliated workforce for the cleanup.
Some workers have come as far as Fresno to go through the program, with out-of-towners staying in campgrounds or with friends or family, said Leonard Gonzales, executive director of the union’s laborers’ training center. A few have found hotels.
They are lured with salaries that start for apprentices at around $19 per hour and can grow up to almost $30 per hour, along with benefits, for a journeyman. Many of those workers are now performing 12-hour shifts for seven days in row, racking in massive overtime and a weekly paycheck that can range from $2,800 to $3,800, he said.
The union’s goal is to keep enough of the workers for the rebuild within the region and the state, Gonzales said.
“We would like to avoid that at all costs,” he said of out-of-state workers. “There is enough manpower here.”
That quest, however, is likely not to be fulfilled, experts said. Woods, of the builders group, noted that most of the workers coming through the LIUNA program were already in the local or regional building trades sector and were not new recruits to the industry.
“We are going to need all the qualified help we can get,” he said.
The sector is working with local officials to explore options to temporarily house out-of-town workers, Woods said, including the possibility of setting up trailers in areas such as the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.
“Anything further than an hour to an hour and a half away won’t work” as a commute, he said.
Outside contractors’ vehicles have already been spotted around the county, said Art Dexter, owner of LeDuc & Dexter Inc., a Santa Rosa residential and commercial plumbing firm that includes Super Service Plumbing.
The company’s employees are now conducting work on burned-out lots, such as ensuring that water and sewer lines to the property are functioning properly so that rebuilding can kick off in the spring.
Dexter and others envision a tough competition for workers, especially those with in-demand skills in areas such as plumbing and electrical, which will lead to higher rebuilding costs.
“It will put pressure on wages,” he said. “And that will put pressure on people who are trying to rebuild their house.”
Local officials have set an ambitious time frame by promising an expedited permitting process and urging contractors to rebuild homes in localized groups.
But some builders are wary, especially those in areas such as Mendocino and Lake counties, which are much farther away from population centers and a trained workforce. Mendocino County, for instance, had 545 structures destroyed in the Redwood Valley fire, according to Cal Fire. Napa County, however, may benefit from contractors and workers coming from the Sacramento area, which is closer by, Woods said.
“I will guess it will not be three to five years,” Dexter of a complete rebuild. “I think it will take 10.”
Still, some have optimism given that the industry typically faces major challenges every day, just not on such a large scale as this natural disaster.
“There’s this indomitable spirit here,” Ghilotti said of the sector. “They just find a way.”
You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @BillSwindell.