The devastating floods that hit south Louisiana earlier this month may have damaged tens of thousands of homes, but local construction officials said there will be enough skilled workers to do the years of rebuilding work even though many of their workers were hit hard too.
“We heard the same thing after Katrina, that we would be short of workers,” said Ken Naquin, chief executive officer of Louisiana Associated General Contractors, which represents nearly 800 contractors, subcontractors, service firms and suppliers. “We were never short of workers.”
Rebuilding after the flood will be a long-term process, Naquin said. After all, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans 11 years ago and there are still parts of the city that haven’t been rebuilt. “It will be a long-term recovery here,” he said.
There’s been an influx of interest from out-of-state contractors who want to help with the rebuilding. Since Aug. 12, 43 out-of-state contractors have filed paperwork and paid hundreds of dollars in fees to the Louisiana State Licensing Board for Contractors. Judy Dupuy, board administrator for the board, said another 200 or so people have called or inquired about getting licensed.
Of the out-of-state applicants, nearly half came from neighboring Texas and Mississippi. Fifteen Texas-based contractors and six from Mississippi applied for licensing, Dupuy said.
Michael McDuff, executive director of the licensing board, said a number of states have reciprocal agreements with Louisiana, including Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas, which speeds up the process of getting a local license. This has allowed the board to certify out-of-state contractors in a week, provided the applicant’s paperwork is in order.
The devastating floods that affected an estimated 42 percent of the homes in metro Baton Rou…
“We do need help, because there are not enough of us,” said Carol Smith, president of the Capitol Region Builders Association. “Our contractors are doing everything they can.”
Smith and Jason Spencer, who heads up the association's remodelers council, said many local construction workers were affected by the flooding.
“We lost a quarter of our team,” said Spencer, who heads Spencer’s Contracting, which has about 10 employees. Some of his workers are spending half the day working on their own homes and the other half at job sites. “It takes some time to get your house in order and balance the work life and the personal things that are going on,” he said.
At the same time, Spencer said his phone is “ringing off the hook” from people who need repairs done to their homes.
“Everybody is trying to evaluate where they stand,” he said. Contractors are trying to determine how many employees and vehicles are available, where things stand with all construction and remodeling work that was underway before the flooding happened.
Spencer said he’s talking to other skilled workers and subcontractors to figure out how to fulfill all current work obligations and any more that will come up in the next few weeks.
Right now, Naquin said the issue is that there’s a shortage of construction work to be done. Wet carpets, flooring, insulation, drywall, appliances and furniture have to be ripped out of a house first. That’s a process that doesn’t require a contractor. Then, the house has to be disinfected, thoroughly dried and checked for mold before any new building can begin.
“You have to wait so many days,” he said.
Larry Bankston, director of the Baton Rouge Growth Coalition and an attorney who has represented the licensing board, said much of the construction will begin in about two weeks.
“We’re not there yet,” he said. Bankston said he expects contractors from other parts of the state will help with the recovery process.
While there are enough construction workers in Baton Rouge available to do the work, Bankston said there may be issues because so many builders sustained home damage and lost vehicles in the flooding. “There will be issues with transportation,” he said.
Before the flooding, the Baton Rouge construction market was robust. In June, there were 53,600 construction workers in the area, 4,000 more than the year before. That 8 percent gain put Baton Rouge 47th out of 358 U.S. metro areas for construction jobs added in the past year.
The south Louisiana construction industry has been able to tap into all of the oil and gas workers who have lost jobs because of low oil prices, Naquin said. Workers from sectors that have seen downturns, like civil engineering, have shifted into multi-family, office, commercial and industrial construction.
“If one end falls off, they grab those workers,” Naquin said. “If someone is a crane operator for a bridge contractor, they can operate the crane on a commercial building.”
A similar thing will happen with all of the flood repairs that need to happen.
While there are concerns about increased competition for skilled construction workers to handle all the flood rebuilding, Naquin said that’s always an issue in the industry.
“A skilled worker can go down the street to work for someone else for 10 cents more an hour,” he said. “But if you look at the industry around town, the industrial sector and commercial building are doing quite well and they’re all maintaining people.”
Cassandra Sibenaller, director of business development for United Fire & Water, a damage remediation company, said her business has been “pretty lucky” in holding onto workers. “It’s based on relationships we established beforehand,” she said. “We also own a maintenance company.”
Down the road, Sibenaller said her business may have to depend more on subcontractors or offer higher wages to keep workers. “But we’ve been pretty lucky,” she said.