“It’s a worker’s market,” says plumber Chad Ferderer, of Fox Plumbing and Heating in Seattle. “It’s getting hard to find good people because demand is so strong."
In a city where technology gets most of the job-related attention, there’s a career field that’s even hotter.
Construction trades are booming right now in Seattle, and they’re projected to grow even faster than computer-related jobs. The state’s Employment Security Department (ESD) projects the average annual growth rate from 2014 through the second quarter of this year in the Seattle area to be 5.33 percent for construction trades workers, while the growth rate for computer occupations is 3.15 percent.
Talk to anyone in the trades, and you’ll hear the same story: There aren’t enough workers to keep up with demand. Contractors are booked a year out. Customers can’t even get businesses to return their phone calls.
“The Seattle market is absolutely as busy as you want to be,” says Jason Wheeler, of HomeSchool Construction.
A Facebook blast, good word of mouth and a few Yelp reviews were all it took for Wheeler’s remodeling company to leap from fledgling to $150,000 jobs in just a few years.
“Money is a commodity that people are really willing to spend right now,” he says. “Home values are going up. People are refinancing. Nobody can really afford to buy a new house, but they want to have something better, so they’re remodeling.”
In 2014, the median hourly wage for a construction worker in the Seattle area $26.63, ranging from $12.54/hour for roofing helpers to $43.18/hour for electrical and electronics repairers (in the powerhouse, substation and relay category), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Nationwide, the outlook is also positive. Construction is projected to add 790,400 jobs by 2024, according to the BLS.
“It’s a worker’s market,” says plumber Chad Ferderer, of Fox Plumbing and Heating. “It’s getting hard to find good people because demand is so strong.
“[Plumbing is] an honest trade, it can be profitable, and there’s always a need for plumbing. It’s not something you can write a Microsoft program to do,” Ferderer says.
One of the biggest misconceptions about the construction trades is that you have to know a lot about everything.
Perhaps that’s true for a general contractor, but for the most part, the trades are about becoming an expert in something very specific.
Take a moment to look around your house. Everything you see has someone who installs, maintains and replaces that system. Look outside — the fence, retaining wall, gutters, siding — all have specialists. This in turn creates thousands of niche jobs. Finding a career means identifying what suits your personality, and then getting really good at what you do, says Wheeler.
While something may look impossibly difficult to understand, it’s usually just a matter of putting together lots of small tasks, he says.
Josh Harris, of Fox Plumbing and Heating, recently went back to school in HVAC after eight years as a construction laborer. He says the benefits and pay are good, and there’s always a need.
“Since the recession, there’s been a big increase in construction jobs,” he says. “Just look at the skyline — all of those cranes. It’s nuts.”
Becoming a licensed contractor in Washington is surprisingly easy. Simply fill out an application, pay the fee and, voila, you’re a contractor. More challenging is getting bonded, for which you need good credit, and insured. It might be difficult to find a someone willing to insure a new company, so you need to show experience.
Some specialty fields like plumbing and electrical have formal trade schools and certification programs, but many jobs are learn-as-you-go.
Working alongside people who are experts at their craft is the fastest way to master your field. Wheeler recommends joining a smaller company as an apprentice so you can do a variety of tasks.
“If you go with a big company, you’re going to be a laborer. You’re going to be digging ditches and pushing a broom, and you’ll maybe swing a hammer after six months,” Wheeler says.
Tricks of the trades
There are downsides to working in the construction trades. It can be hard on your body, the jobs can be dirty, and some have seasonal swings so you may not have a job come winter.
But with each downside, there’s a silver lining: You stay fit without a gym membership. At the end of the day, you can step back and admire your work. And if you correctly budget, you can travel during the slow periods.