Focus, Construction, and Government

Builders discuss lack of skilled workers before House committee

Youth Employment Standards Act hinders minors from working construction jobs.

February 13, 2015
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Could the lack of available skilled labor currently facing West Michigan’s construction industry be partially solved with a legislation change?

Members of the Home Builders Association of Michigan testified earlier this month before the State House. In a hearing held Feb. 5, they urged the House Workforce Development Committee to enact legislation to help increase the number of people entering the skilled trades.

The hearing comes on the heels of HBAM having completed its annual member survey of about 4,500 members. The survey found most HBAM homebuilders have a positive outlook for 2015, with about 90 percent of survey responders saying they expect business to go better this year than last year. But the issue of finding talent was still a major concern, with about 71 percent of HBAM’s members agreeing the biggest issue facing the industry is a workforce shortage, according to HBAM.

“Homebuilders in Michigan lost 60,000 jobs to the Great Recession. Literally, when the housing industry went south, so too did many of our workers,” said Dawn Crandall, public affairs director for HBAM.

“Fortunately, the industry is coming back, and there are good paying careers ready to be had. We will be working closely with Michigan policymakers and educators this year to increase the number of high school graduates seeking careers in the home-building industry.”

One of the members who testified Feb. 5 was John Bitely, owner of Rockford-based Sable Homes and co-chair of the Home Builders Association of Grand Rapids’ Next Generation Committee.

“The lack of workers going into the skilled trades is the biggest factor impacting the growth of Michigan’s home building industry,” he said. “The shortage of labor is resulting in construction delays and increased labor costs, and it’s dragging on our state.”

There are a couple of Michigan laws that make it unnecessarily “cumbersome” to hire younger workers, Bitely said.

He cited the Youth Employment Standards Act 90 of 1978, which essentially states that anyone under the age of 18 “may not work in any occupation deemed to be hazardous, which includes work on construction sites,” without parent, school and employer signed work permits, he said.

“(The) Youth Employment Standards Act 90 of 1978 defines a minor who is less than 18 years of age, including but not limited to employees, volunteers, independent contractors and performing artists,” according to “Minors under 18 years of age must obtain a work permit or have their school complete a training agreement before starting work. Work permits can be obtained from the school the minor attends or the school district where the minor will be employed. If the minor changes jobs, a new work permit is required for the new employer. A work permit may be revoked for poor academic performance. A work permit is required even if the minor does not attend school.”

The Act’s work permit process does more to hinder high-school students and the construction industry than it does to protect students, Bitely said.

“There are lots of high school students who could gain valuable work experience in the building industry over the summer, but the current law forces them into flipping burgers,” he said.

“With that in place, as a residential builder, I cannot hire ‘Johnny B. Tough’ to come carry lumber on my site or come seed the lawn because it’s a construction site. … The common joke I use is Pizza Hut. They will not let you cut the pizza unless you’re 18 years old. A lot of people don’t know that.”

Laws like this hurt the middle class, Bitely said, adding that such laws are a complete deviation from how many of the industry’s current leaders got their start.

“If you go back in years past, a bunch of us started our summer job with ‘Uncle Joe’ or ‘Neighbor Fred,’ and we got in his truck and helped out at a construction job,” he said.

“I cannot put a 16-year-old youth on a sawhorse and teach him how to use it. That’s considered too dangerous. But (they can) at Kent Career Technical Center in a shop class. Why can’t we do it in the field?”

Bitely said he was encouraged by the committee’s response, saying they seemed genuinely interested in working on the issue. He hopes they’ll act in time for his upcoming trade skills event for students, which is being held April 28 at DeVos Place in downtown Grand Rapids.

The event — Career Quest — will highlight about 25 potential trades for the 2,000 West Michigan students expected to attend, ranging from 7th-12th grade.

Career Quest is being co-hosted by Michigan Works! and the Construction Workforce Development Alliance.

Bitely’s plans to combat the construction industry’s lack of labor goes back to 2013, when local leaders in the industry realized many workers had either aged out or left during the recession, and new talent wasn’t being trained.

Unless the problem is addressed soon, it could begin to slow the growth the area’s been enjoying lately, he said. That would become problematic for everyone.

“It’s going to stagnate us a little bit or greatly diminish the amount of growth and recovery that’s available. I don’t know any residential builder in West Michigan that isn’t ready to hire people or a design firm ready to hire. They cannot find people to fill the positions,” he said.

“(We want to be) telling young people, ‘There’s jobs for you and hope for you. I don’t want to be negative about college, but you can make a good living with us without student debt.’”

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