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Growth in the energy industry means growth in construction. Tens of billions of dollars of development is in the works along the Gulf Coast, the Midwest and the Great Plains. But construction workers are few and far between. Right now there are about 20 percent fewer skilled workers in the industry than there were in 2008. Trade apprenticeships are helping to ease the shortage. But as Miles Bryan of Wyoming Public radio reports, it may be too little too late.
MILES BRYAN: Jeremy Smith is the business manager for a school district in Northern Wyoming. It's a beautiful day and he's excited to show me the new Tongue River Elementary School - or at least the plot of land where the school should be.
JEREMY SMITH: What you're going to see when we get up here a little bit closer is you're going to just see pasture.
BRYAN: The school was supposed to be under construction by now but last month state officials said, they didn't have the money.
SMITH: I think we did everything right in this case. We didn't redesign a whole new school. We went and found one that was built twice already in the state.
BRYAN: The district plans to keep its costs down by borrowing the design for its new school from one that had been built last year in a nearby town. That school...
SMITH: Was built about $211 a square foot. When we opened bids on this same school it was $280.
BRYAN: In other words, the new Tongue River would cost about a third more than the same school designed last year, just 30 miles away. It's a problem of supply and demand. This year there's almost as much construction work in energy boom states like Wyoming as there was in 2008. But back then, there were about 6 million Americans working in commercial construction. Now there's only about four and half million.
RON KAISER: Usually there's people waiting and willing to come to work. I've been with the business since '99 and it's the worst I've seen.
BRYAN: Ron Kaiser is the vice president of Mike's Electric. One of the contractors that bid high on the new school. He's so busy I had to catch up with him at a job site on the other side of town. He says, he's had to raise benefits to attract enough workers.
KAISER: What's really strange, you go in to an interview and they're actually interviewing you instead of you interviewing them.
MIKE GLAVIN: If you're a very highly skilled welder you can pretty much write your own ticket.
BRYAN: Mike Glavin is a senior manager with the Associated Builders and Contractors. He says, that after construction took a nosedive six years ago, a lot of skilled workers left the business and they haven't come back. And many of the workers that did stay were older and now they're starting to eye retirement.
GLAVIN: That's another concern that a lot of contractors are looking at five to 10 years from now, where the folks that they have are going to be leaving the industry and they don't necessarily see a replacement for those folks.
BRYAN: One possible replacement is Michael Swanson. He's an apprentice electrician currently working a summer job, rewiring the University of Wyoming's engineering building. Swanson actually studied engineering at college for a year but he says, it was because he felt like he had to.
MICHAEL SWANSON: They almost made it seem like you either go to college or you amount to nothing, coming from teachers, from parents, from other kids. It's just pretty much either you go to school or you end up working at McDonald's.
BRYAN: Swanson says, being an electrician is really satisfying both intellectually and financially.
SWANSON: I can take time off when I need. I don't have to work overtime without being paid like I would a salary job, like an engineer.
BRYAN: And Swanson says, as an apprentice he's making $26 an hour.
SWANSON: I mean, I'm already - I'm saving up for a house, I plan on buying soon because of this job.
BRYAN: But there needs to be a lot more young people like Swanson in the near future to meet demand. In Wyoming and all around the U.S. Swanson says, that when he started his apprenticeship program it could hold 60 students, but only 20 enrolled and only 12 graduated. The Associated Builders and Contractors estimates the construction industry is facing a shortage of almost 2 million skilled workers by the end of the decade. For NPR News, I'm Miles Bryan in Laramy.
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