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Where are all the workers these days?

It is widely agreed that small business is the backbone of the economy, providing jobs and needed products and services.

Today many small businesses are facing unprecedented challenges. My small business is engaged in providing home repairs, remodeling, and improvements. We are also involved in building much-needed rental housing, trying to help in a small way with the national housing shortage.

I started this business over 16 years ago and managed to survive some challenging times from 2007 to 2010, during the great housing crash. This time around, contractors like myself have been hit with price increases, product shortages, and extreme lead times. We used to be able to order new windows and get them in two weeks. Now new windows are about eight weeks.

We’ve seen lumber prices go into the stratosphere, for example, oriented strand board sheathing that used to cost $12 a sheet reached $66 a sheet and is now hovering around $20.

Most contractors have diesel-powered trucks. Diesel fuel is now around $6 a gallon, which means it can cost me around $20 just to drive to your home to look at your job. All of this impacts the affordability for consumers, whether you are planning a bathroom remodel or looking for a new home.

Recently the biggest challenge is finding and hiring employees. As a small business, I have had at the most three employees and currently have none. A good friend who is retired helps me out on a part-time basis when I need a second set of hands.

Finding a competent carpenter is like trying to get your hands on a moon rock. As a result, I have been forced to turn down work because I can’t find employees.

A simple search on Craigslist will confirm that I am not alone; just about every business can’t find enough help. Help wanted signs can be seen everywhere. Sign-on bonuses and top-level wages don’t seem to be enough to get people off the couch.

I could write a book filled with stories of job candidates who won’t even return phone calls or texts. The last carpenter I hired passed the mandatory drug screen and background check then didn’t show up for work. No call, no text, nothing. It’s really frustrating and hard to understand. When did we get to the point of not communicating with each other?

I wish I understood where all the people are, but I don’t. Construction and the trades, in general, have been hard hit the last couple of decades. Many who were laid off during the 2008 housing crash left to pursue other jobs vowing not to return to the ups and downs of the housing industry. The education system also did not help when it removed shop classes and other vocational offerings from high schools.

There has been a resurgence in trade classes in some school districts, but it will take decades to undo the damage. And then we have this whole social media influence where every teen seems to want to be rich and successful from writing an app or being a TikTok, Instagram, or YouTube celebrity. Nobody seems to want to get dirt under their fingernails or break a sweat by doing actual hard work.

I wish I had the answer, but admittedly I’m lost.

I am looking for a good all-around carpenter. If you know somebody, please send them my way. Also, please be patient with all the small businesses you come in contact with; we are all doing our best to deal with the never-ending challenges we face each day.

John Robinson owns Quality Residential Construction LLC in Albany. He can be reached at [email protected].

This opinion piece originally appeared in the 8/19/22 Albany Democrat-Herald Corvallis Gazette Times.


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