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Building, Construction and Design Industry Leaders Temper Boom Year with Concerns for the Future

Salt Lake City—You don’t have to go very far in Utah to see that the construction business has had its hands full. Just landing at Salt Lake City International Airport can show that. Throughout this year, Main Street in downtown Salt Lake City has seen its own share of debris and scaffolding, with 111 Main and the Eccles Theatre going up. And while those two projects may be done, soon there will be a convention hotel, the new prison, and plenty of other projects taking their place.

“We’re pretty excited about what’s happening right now. There are a lot of fantastic projects coming out,” said Troy Thompson, vice president of Okland Construction. “There are a lot of bigger, what I would call mega, projects—some that have been awarded, some that are on the horizon.”

With so much going on—some $5.1 billion worth of projects, according to Rob Moore, president of Big-D Construction—it’s not hard to see why the construction industry might be patting themselves on the back and cracking a bottle of champagne. But while the industry is faring well, its leaders are being cautious in their optimism, spotting challenges and weaknesses that need to be solved or bolstered.

At the annual Building, Construction and Design Roundtable, taking place at Holland and Hart Thursday morning, nearly 25 industry veterans and experts met to discuss the “state of their state.”

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“The economy is robust and our projects are robust,” said Moore. “The only thing we have to deal with is labor. I don’t think it’s as much for us as some of the larger contractors. Some of our subcontractors, who are very, very good subcontractors, are really struggling to come out of the recession and be able to man the projects. We’re concerned about the success of our subcontractors more than we’re concerned about us right at this moment. We’re hoping that we’ve got the labor support on projects.”

Troy Gregory, president of Hunt Electric, Inc., said it’s partly because business has been so robust that subcontractors are having a difficult time delivering. “As everyone has mentioned, most of the markets are booming, so there’s a lot of opportunity right there,” he said. “On the subcontractor base, I think that’s a legitimate concern. I think, with all the opportunity, it’s easy to overcommit. I think that’s what you’re finding with a lot of the subcontractor base.”

Another, longer-term issue that’s cropping up for the industry is the lack of new blood. Participants noted that Millennials are largely uninterested in the industry, and with education becoming more and more STEM-focused and continuing to be less focused on vocational training, where is the next generation of skilled labor going to come from?

“We don’t have a lot of young individuals like [we did] when we were young. A lot of people went into the construction trades and there are great paying jobs. And wages have gone up a lot since that time,” said Thompson. “But we’re just not finding them. Kids are going into tech and other things. As a group, we’ve got to find a way to get these kids, whether it’s union trading, whether it’s in the high schools, to get these kids interested in the construction trades—or we’re not going to have people to fill our jobs.”

The discussion was moderated by Richard Thorn, President/CEO of AGC Utah. Read the entire conversation in the February issue of Utah Business.