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Short Of Workers, Employers Are Getting Creative To Entice People Into Construction


Throughout the U.S., the hills are alive with the clanging sound of rebar and also hammers and really loud drills. House prices have shot up, and it's a fantastic time to be a homebuilder. But Darian Woods and Stacey Vanek Smith from The Indicator report on one big obstacle construction companies face.

DARIAN WOODS, BYLINE: When I asked Brandy McCombs how she got into the construction trades, she answered with one word.

BRANDY MCCOMBS: Accident. I needed a day job. I was trying to raise a family, and I ended up working for a mechanical, electrical and plumbing contractor in their service department.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: This accident led to a career in construction.

WOODS: Brandy started her Kansas City-based carpentry company IBC in 2008, and she hasn't ever looked back. But there is one major headache.

MCCOMBS: Workforce having the skilled trades to perform the work.

VANEK SMITH: Of course, if you told this story to a lot of economists, they would have a very fast answer for you, which is, raise the wages.

WOODS: Why not just pay more?

MCCOMBS: We do. So at hourly all-in wage, we probably started out about $45 then. Now we're at 65.

VANEK SMITH: So that $65 an hour - it does include benefits, and it is about double the median wage in the U.S. But still, it hasn't been enough to get the workers Brandy needs. And so she has started advertising another perk, especially for those hard-to-fill senior roles - the use of a vehicle.

WOODS: I assume it's a truck, a pickup truck.

MCCOMBS: A truck - oh, yeah. It's a F-150. Are you sure you don't want a job (laughter)?

VANEK SMITH: This kind of thing, this kind of very aggressive recruiting - this is happening all over the country. Rick Palacios Jr. says he's seen this in his research on the real estate industry.

RICK PALACIOS: There is insatiable demand. We can't build it fast enough. And how that all manifests itself is higher wages.

WOODS: But why hasn't that attracted enough new workers for the industry?

VANEK SMITH: Of course, one thing about construction work is that it is really hard, and there are a lot of dangers involved. I mean, you're out there in the sun every day - lots of safety risks.

WOODS: And in the early 2000s the inflow of immigrants into construction, both legal and undocumented, was really high.

PALACIOS: The industry does rely on immigrants historically, right? And that's not a political statement. That's hard statistics. You know, we haven't had the friendliest of policies there over the last several years.

VANEK SMITH: So Brandy, our carpentry business owner - she is focusing right now on the things she can control. So she is offering higher wages and the use of a pickup truck, but she's also going into high schools. And through this outreach, Brandy says she has helped to shape some teenagers' lives and partly solve her own hiring problem. She uses the example of a young woman she met in Kansas City.

MCCOMBS: She had no idea. Her mom was a teacher at a local community college. Her dad was a UPS driver and didn't know anything about construction.

WOODS: Brandy gave this young woman an internship at her company. It went really well, and she came back and actually interviewed Brandy, which was part of this young woman's capstone project for her engineering degree.

MCCOMBS: And I was like, oh, full circle. And that right there is what it's all about. When someone says, well, why did you do it? Because that was worth every moment I spent with that girl.

VANEK SMITH: Now all Brandy has to do is find dozens more people like that.

WOODS: Darian Woods.

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.
Darian Woods is a reporter and producer for The Indicator from Planet Money. He blends economics, journalism, and an ear for audio to tell stories that explain the global economy. He's reported on the time the world got together and solved a climate crisis, vaccine intellectual property explained through cake baking, and how Kit Kat bars reveal hidden economic forces.