Retiring construction workers heighten concerns for upcoming Duluth-area projects

Some local labor leaders say there aren't enough construction workers to fill open jobs, while others say this isn't accurate as they're all filled.

Construction workers were busy rebuilding Minnesota Highway 29 in New Duluth Thursday afternoon. Steve Kuchera /

With a slate of major construction projects underway and planned for the Duluth area, local labor leaders are closely watching the number of employed construction workers.

Data from the state doesn’t show a shortage of construction laborers, but some in the industry say a shortage exists — and can be eased with more recruiting and training. But all leaders say more workers will be needed to fill jobs on upcoming Duluth-area projects.

Construction worker shortages cause project delays, require companies to look beyond the Northland for workers and increase project costs, said Elena Foshay, director of workforce development for the city of Duluth.

"If you end up with a delay in one trade, it could impact the next three or four trades that are lined up to do their work after that component is finished," said Dan Markham, director of operations for Kraus-Anderson. "It can have this trickle-down effect that can really knock a whole project off of schedule — and time is money in construction."

With numerous large projects set to start in the next year, including Essentia Health’s 18-story campus and a new 15-story downtown apartment tower , market demand for labor will increase.


“Whether that creates ... additional new demand for construction workers or just sort of keeps up the demand for the existing workforce,” Foshay said. “Either way, there's going to be a big demand for construction workers and not enough people to meet that demand.”

Markham said he's concerned about a future shortage. "There's not enough capacity to do the projects of that scale, and then continue to service the normal level of construction activity that goes on," he said.

Combine those upcoming projects with retiring workers and local industry's workforce will be stretched thin, Foshay said.

In general, construction workers in St. Louis County have gotten older. In 2005, under 10% of construction workers were over 55 years old, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Economic and Employment Development. Last year, it increased to approximately 18% of the workforce.

A lack of hiring during the Great Recession contributed to a gap in the workforce. Now, as older workers retire, there aren’t enough young people lined up to fill the open spots, according to Erik White, labor market analyst for DEED.

Views differ over possible shortage


But is the area already experiencing a labor shortage? It depends on who you ask.

Data from DEED doesn’t necessarily show a shortage of workers in St. Louis County. Last year, more than 4,400 people were employed in construction countywide — an increase of more than 500 people from 10 years prior.

Although the data doesn’t indicate a shortage, White said it’s ultimately difficult to determine what the exact worker need is.

Foshay said currently there aren't enough people to fill the open positions.

Darrell Godbout, the vice president of Duluth Building and Construction Trades Council, disagrees. He said there isn’t a shortage at the moment, as it’s been easy to fill construction jobs.

“There may be in other parts of the country, I just haven’t seen it (here)," Godbout said. “We’re sitting OK how it is right now.”

A shortage could occur if all of the area’s upcoming projects begin at one time, otherwise it wouldn't be “too hard” to fill the jobs, Godbout said.


“If this stretches out it will be great, but if it doesn’t then it’ll be tough,” he said.

Training 'pipeline' may ease future shortage

To curb a possible shortage of workers, some say creating a "pipeline" of workers could increase the numbers of those entering construction careers.

And numerous Northland organizations are focused on doing just that.

Godbout said unions are working with high schools and colleges to help fill apprenticeship programs in preparation for the numerous projects.

And, Duluth’s Workforce Development Center has numerous initiatives to educate and introduce local high schoolers to a labor career. It trains students, gives them hands-on experience and launched 218 Trades, a website with information about trade careers. The center also helps with short-term training classes for adults interested in a trades career, among numerous other initiatives.

While the carpentry construction program at Lake Superior College has seen decreasing enrollment, it's been on the uptick in the last two to three years, said Brad Vieths, dean of business and industry at Lake Superior College. This year, the program has more than 25 students enrolled.

The challenge comes with recruiting those who don’t have a direct connection to the career, which Vieths said typically happens via family members. “How do we expose a whole new generation if they don’t have a family tie to the industry? How do we give them an environment to learn those skills?” he asked.

Duluth recently launched a new initiative to ensure more women and people of color can attain construction jobs. The Community Benefits Program requires any company doing construction work for the city to have a plan and "good faith effort" to have 10% of a project's work hours be done by people of color and/or women. This percentage will increase to 15% in 2021.

The efforts, Foshay said, are working.

“(Contractors are) supportive of that idea. And they come to the table and are like: Alright, let's figure this out together — let's figure out how to build this pipeline,” she said.

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