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LABOR SHORTAGE Homeowners having a hard time finding workers for remodeling projects can take some comfort: Contractors feel your pain. A severe labor shortage is rippling through the home construction industry, from the smallest repairs to the biggest new builds. Homeowners who a few years ago might have started a renovation in a month or two now are waiting six months or longer. “This is a widespread problem,” said Jim Hilz, executive director of the Building Industry Association of Central Ohio. “We don’t have people coming into the industry like we need to.” Almost 80 percent of contractors surveyed recently by the home design and remodeling website Houzz reported moderate to severe labor shortages. In the Midwest, the figure was even higher: 84 percent. Contractors say shortages can be found throughout the industry, but are especially acute among skilled tradespeople such as carpenters, electricians and plumbers. But even basic laborers are hard to find: 42 percent of contractors say they can’t find unskilled workers. The shortage shows little sign of improving, despite upcoming cold weather, which is ordinarily catch-up time for contractors. Builders in the Houzz survey expect no slowdown, and a quarterly study by Harvard University forecasts that remodeling activity could reach its highest levels next year in more than a decade. Things are so tight that a contractor hired by “Mr. Fix It” Bill Davis for a recent job in Worthington was asked to jump ship by a crew working on a neighboring house. “It’s just really hard to find guys out there,” Davis said. Davis and other contractors say the robust industry combined with the labor shortage add up to delays for homeowners. Allison Menden understands all too well. In May, she hired a central Ohio firm to remodel her Upper Arlington kitchen and bath. After gutting the kitchen in July, workers got sidetracked onto other — bigger — projects. Despite Menden’s repeated entreaties — which eventually included complaints to the Better Business Bureau and the Ohio attorney general’s office — the workers failed to return. Menden spent more than two months in limbo, with her unplugged stove sitting in the living room along with unopened boxes of kitchen cabinets and bookshelves full of food. “I’m struggling to live like this,” she said in September. Workers finally returned to the job a few weeks ago, and Menden is hoping the project wraps up by the holidays. Homeowners with modest projects might wait months to schedule visits with contractors, whose skeleton crews are tied down by bigger projects. Kelly and William Baumgardner have been trying for more than a year to get a contractor to do a simple renovation of a small bathroom in their Worthington home. After repeated overtures, they finally got two contractors to visit, neither of whom responded with a quote. “A third guy said, ‘Oh yeah, I can do this job,’" Kelly Baumgardner said last week. “He gave us a price and everything. We were so excited that he responded yes. He said, ‘OK, I’ll call you soon and get you on the schedule.’ He let a couple of weeks go by, so I called him and my husband called him this week. I don’t know if we’re going to hear back from him, and we didn’t even quibble about these quotes. I seriously can’t believe how hard it is to spend your money.” Contractors acknowledge that labor shortages are forcing them to pass on projects. “I’ve ended up turning away work lately because we don’t have enough people,” said Justin Collamore, owner of the Upper Arlington firm Collamore Built. “Five years ago, we were taking projects as they came in,” Collamore added. “But in the last year it’s really hit where we’ve had to start scheduling out six, eight months in advance on our jobs." After a long search, Collamore recently hired two carpenters, which he hopes will ease the crunch. Industry officials are trying to encourage schools to offer more trade classes, especially since many have dropped traditional shop classes. In response, the Columbus school district last year launched a program in which juniors and seniors can work in skilled trades while attending school. The program was enough of a success that it was expanded this year. In another effort to promote a career in trades, students at Fort Hayes Career Center built a tiny home that is displayed around town and in middle schools. “We need to get into schools and change the perception that skilled trades is the consolation prize,” said Aaron Enfinger, the production manager at the Cleary Co. construction firm in Columbus who sits on a National Association of the Remodeling Industry panel seeking to address the issue. The Cleary Co. knows firsthand how hard it is to find good workers. It spent three or four months looking for a new project manager and carpenter, Enfinger said. “In the middle of the downturn, you could have found guys all over the place,” he said. jweiker@dispatch.com
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