By Bob Driehaus
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Greater Cincinnati's 10-year economic expansion has created a shortage of bricklayers and other skilled subcontractors for home building in the wake of a huge demand for new homes.
''Right now, everybody is busy. If you're not busy, then something is wrong,'' said Dan May, vice president of Ireland May Ltd. ''For somebody like a bricklayer, it's best to schedule them as soon as you're digging the hole.''
The shortage is worst among framers, bricklayers and concrete masons, according to a new survey by the Home Builders Association of Northern Kentucky. That's causing home building to slow.
''Contract to completion is taking a longer period of time,'' said Dan Dressman, executive vice president of the home builders group.
Housing starts were down 17 percent through August compared to a year ago, according to the Home Builders Association of Greater Cincinnati. Demand is still high, however, considering 1999 was a record year for the industry.
''The biggest reason (for the labor shortage) is that things have been so good for so long, and I'm certainly not complaining. '' May said.
Ireland May builds six to eight homes a year priced at $600,000 and higher. It hires bricklayers six to eight weeks before the job is set to begin. The company rehires the same crews repeatedly to help ensure quality and consistency.
'' We've been fortunate in that we work with some really gifted people,'' May said.
Not every builder has been as fortunate. Tardiness and absenteeism were critical problems cited by 44 percent of the survey's respondents.
Every respondent listed unskilled labor as a critical problem on job sites.
W. Parker Cowgill, president of Park Homes in Milford, said his sub-contractors have had trouble finding workers.
But Cowgill, whose company builds four to eight homes a year priced higher than $500,000, said he maintains quality through exhaustive planning.
''I think if you get started early enough you can find people. It's really a matter of scheduling people and getting them lined up,'' Cowgill said. His Park Homes is ready to lay a foundation on a home. He scheduled a framer for the job two months ago.
He has enough work lined up to keep busy for a year, he said.
''It's a general trend we're seeing in all the trades across the country,'' Dressman said. ''It's a good problems, I guess, because it's an indication of just how well the economy is going.''
To combat the labor shortage, the Home Builders Association of Northern Kentucky is encouraging more participation in its Evening Trades Program, a four-year apprenticeship program for the carpentry, electricity, and heating and cooling trades.
About 200 students are signed up for twice-weekly evening classes this fall at vocational centers. Graduates are all but guaranteed a job when they're finished.
''We have most of the builders calling us wanting to know if we have people waiting for them,'' Dressman said. ''You can make a good living in these trades today.'
The Home Builders Association of Greater Cincinnati works with Great Oaks Institute of Technology and Career Development to train more crafts people.