North Bay home construction held up by labor shortage

Jesus Angel, left, and Manuel Guzman work on the Ortiz Family Plaza, which will include 30 affordable housing units, in the Larkfield area, on Tuesday, September 6, 2016. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)


Homebuilding in Sonoma County may be on the rebound thanks to near-record housing prices, but a shortage of construction workers is making it hard for builders to bang out new homes quickly enough to meet demand.

Many carpenters, electricians and other tradesmen found other employment after the housing market tanked in the recession. Now that the market has awoken, builders are having a tough time convincing such skilled workers to put their tool belts back on and rejoin a boom-bust industry.

“Before they had workers but no work,” said Keith Woods, chief executive officer at North Coast Builders Exchange, a Santa Rosa trade group. “Now they’ve got work but no workers.”

The shortage of local construction workers mirrors a national trend borne out in new figures from the National Association of Homebuilders. The trade group estimated approximately 200,000 unfilled construction jobs now exist in the U.S. — a jump of 81 percent in the past two years, Reuters reported.

“The labor shortage is getting worse as demand is getting stronger,” said John Courson, chief executive of the Home Builders Institute, told the news service. The Home Builders Institute is a national nonprofit that trains workers in the construction field.

On the North Coast, the number of construction jobs is far higher than it was when the recession caused a painful shakeout in the building trades. Between 2005 and 2011, the number of construction jobs plunged 40 percent, to 9,100, according to of state Employment Development Department.

Since 2012, employment has risen slowly each year. Last month, the county had 12,000 construction workers. That’s a significant boost, but still not enough to keep pace with a surge in demand brought on by a robust Bay Area economy and soaring local housing prices.

Before dipping in July to $575,000, the median single-family home price in Sonoma County hit $600,000 in June, just 3 percent shy of its all-time high of $619,000 in 2005.

Regional and local builders have been enticed to pursue projects that could bring thousands of new homes to the county in coming years. Rohnert Park’s new University District neighborhood alone could hold more than 1,600 housing units. Santa Rosa set a goal of approving 1,000 new units this year.

But builders are finding they just don’t have the manpower to pull off their grand plans as quickly as they might like.

Woods said the shortage is moving “from a problem to a crisis.”

“It’s no exaggeration to say that there isn’t a week that goes by that I or the Builders Exchange don’t get a call saying ‘Help! Do you have some electricians or other skilled workers, because it’s holding me back from doing jobs?’ ”

The local labor shortage is being exacerbated by two things, said Jack Buckhorn, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council.

One is the strong demand in the San Francisco and San Jose markets, which is drawing workers south for steady work on large projects, Buckhorn said.

The other is the construction of the $175 million hotel and convention center at the Graton Resort & Casino in Rohnert Park, which is wrapping up work later this month. That project alone is tying up approximately 350 mostly local workers, Buckhorn said.

When that 200-room project is complete, those workers will be freed up and other local projects should be able to pick up steam, he said.

“We’re not in as bad a shape as it seems right at the moment,” Buckhorn said.

Local trades are having success luring workers who may have found other work during the recession back because the pay is good and the local market for such jobs is improving, he said.

The apprentice programs the labor council runs have been growing for years, and a new program aims to reduce the drop-out rate from such programs, he said.

The labor shortage is something that Santa Rosa-based contractor Jeff Luchetti predicted several years ago, causing him to switch to a more efficient modular construction model, he said.

The recession was so long and so deep that workers either moved out of the area or contractors and subcontractors went out of business, Luchetti said.

“It’s a real problem,” he said.

Builders are forced to raise wages to attract workers, pushing prices up at just the wrong time, he said.

So his company, which had built modular projects for more than a decade, founded a modular construction division out of a 45,000-square-foot space in Windsor.

The company just started building a 30-unit affordable housing project in Larkfield called Ortiz Family Plaza. The site is being prepared for four apartment buildings, which will be constructed in modular units that will be delivered and assembled on site, he said.

Work is about to get underway on a similar 20-unit project in Santa Rosa on North Street, he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or On Twitter @srcitybeat.