In Rutland, A Pronounced Case Of America's Skilled Labor Shortage

May 9, 2017

Have you tried to call a plumber or electrician lately? How about a carpenter? Nationwide, there’s a shortage of skilled tradespeople. 

According to a 2016 industry-wide survey released by the Associated General Contractors of America, two-thirds of construction firms reported having a hard time filling hourly craft positions that represent the bulk of the construction workforce.

Association officials report that to cope, many firms are changing the way they pay and operate. Many firms also warned that the labor shortages could undermine broader economic growth, and they called for new workforce measures to improve recruiting and training of craft workers.

In Rutland, where the population is shrinking and aging — and there’s significant demand from local manufacturers — the shortage of skilled tradespeople is especially pronounced. 

Robbie Stubbins heads a contracting business his father started in Rutland almost 20 years ago. Today, Stubbins Electric has grown to include 30 employees, and handles residential, commercial and solar installations.

Stubbins says the company could be even larger if he could just find more quality workers.

“We can’t bid the amount of work that we’d like to bid or that’s out there on the commercial side because there’s just not enough people to be able to handle that work,” he said.

And it’s only going to get worse, says Stubbins, “because most of the electricians in the area are  going to be retiring in the next five to 10 years.”

"Carpenters, plumbers, excavators, anyone I talk to says the same thing. It's hard to find skilled help." — Robbie Stubbins, Stubbins Electric

It’s not just electricians, he adds: “Everybody’s got the same problem: carpenters, plumbers, excavators, anyone I talk to says the same thing. It’s hard to find skilled help.”

Brian Reed, a carpenter and contractor in Rutland, says he’s booked out with building projects into the summer of 2018.

“It’s a very physically demanding job that not many young people seem willing to do nowadays,” says Reed. “There’s no shortage of work, but it seems like there’s no one willing to put in the time with an experienced builder to learn.”

Robbie Stubbins and others believe part of the problem comes from the increased push over the last 20 to 30 years to funnel more high school students into college.

“Don’t get me wrong, says Stubbins, “college can be great for some people. But I’m seeing a lot of twenty-somethings in this part of Vermont who feel stuck in low-paying food service or tourism jobs struggling to pay off college loans.”

And Stubbins says many end up moving out of state to find work.

According to the Vermont Futures Project, Vermont graduates about 7,000 students a year from high school. But only 50 percent attend college, leaving about 3,500 high school graduates eligible for the workforce.

But the notion of learning a trade isn't resonating with them. Michael Keogh, the business and community outreach manger for the Community College of Vermont, thinks it may be an image problem.

"I think the perception of the trades is that they're low-skill, low-pay, that there's a lack of career opportunities. And that's just not the case." — Michael Keogh, Community College of Vermont

“I think the perception of the trades is that they’re low-skill, low-pay, that there’s a lack of career opportunities," says Keogh. "And that’s just not the case.”

As proof, Stubbins cites the growing demand for solar installation technicians in Rutland, something that he says has helped his company grow exponentially.

He says a four-year apprentice program for an electrician is typically paid for by an employer, so students are trained at relatively low cost to themselves while earning an hourly wage.

“You start at $11 [an hour] as an apprentice who basically knows nothing and goes through the trade.  And as you become a good electrician or a foreman, you can make upwards of $24 to $25 an hour, which for this area is a pretty good wage.”

But if the trades are in such short supply, some might argue wages are still not high enough. Stubbins takes issue with that argument.

“We can’t pay more unless our costs come down as a business, or unless customers are willing to pay more,” he says. “But customers don’t really want to pay for that. We already pay our guys a bit more than the going rate and I have to bid in line with what everyone else is bidding. And everybody else is paying the same wage. So unless the market comes up, then there’s not too much that can be done about that.”

Nonetheless, if the shortage of those in the trades continues to worsen, industry experts say prices will go up and customers will have to pay more.

Glenn Olson directs the Stafford Technical Center in Rutland, which offers training and internships in various trades for high school students.

Olson says Stafford works with a number of local employers, including plumbing, electrical and building contractors. He says he’s even been approached by the local hospital because administrators there worry about the shortage of students getting trained in heating, ventilation and air conditioning maintenance.

Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mary Cohen says the city, outlying towns and the local business community are investing in a new marketing campaign to help grow the local population and rebrand the region.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

While Olson says Stafford tries to get the word out to local high school students about the opportunities available, he admits it’s often parents who need the most convincing. Olson says he tries to impress on parents that a trade is not a step down for their son or daughter but a viable career choice — especially, he says, for someone who wants to stay in Vermont.

And it’s not just the trades that are in short supply. Michael Keogh says the Community College of Vermont is also trying to boost the number of skilled workers for local manufacturers.

He says the college works closely with companies such as GE Aviation, which makes high-precision airfoils for jet engines. Keogh says the company is ramping up production, yet about a third of its Rutland workforce is at or near retirement age.

“In the case of GE Aviation for example, where we need a lot of highly skilled production workers for advanced manufacturing, we offer a 24-week training and certification program and that allows people to get certified as production technicians.”

Keogh says this is a great option for someone in their twenties or thirties who feels stuck in a low-paying job.

The 24-week manufacturing course is held one night a week and anyone who successfully completes it is guaranteed an interview at GE, which can lead to a nearly $20-an-hour entry-level job with benefits and the opportunity to advance.

But many manufacturers and business leaders say to really expand the labor pool, Rutland needs to address is shrinking population.

Mary Cohen, executive director of the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce, says to do that, local businesses and the city are investing more than $200,000 in a new marketing campaign to re-brand the city, which they plan to launch in the fall.

“Step one," says Cohen, "is selling Rutland to Rutland.”

Locals are often the city's worst critics, she admits, so it will be a challenge. “But if we’re gong to invite people from outside of our area to come to the Rutland region, everyone that they encounter has to have the same message, that this is a really cool place to live and that we enjoy it here.” 

So besides attracting new residents, she says, they want to encourage people who already live in Rutland to stay — and in the process, get people thinking about Rutland as a great place to launch a new career.