You hear grumbling about workforce issues everywhere in the Gulf region these days, but the effects are certainly not limited there, industry insiders say.
"A lot of the labor either got out of the business or went south," says Tony Stehling, southeast regional manager for Austin Bridge & Road LP, Dallas.
Austin Bridge and Road is struggling to find skilled labor‹specifically pile drivers and construction carpenters--for a $25 million contract to rehabilitate the westbound bridge over the Red River in Bossier City, La., about 350 miles north of New Orleans. He also says he has a similar problem with a job near Greenville, Miss. "They are paying pretty good wages and all the contracts are accelerated."
Before Katrina, there was already plenty of work to go around in the southeast region, Stehling says. "Our highway spending has been up for years. Pile the hurricane onto it, and there¹s a lot of work."
Problems attracting skilled craftsmen and gathering equipment delayed Townsco Contracting Co. Inc., Oklahoma City, Ok., on delivery of a project at Alexandria Airpark in mid-Louisiana. After Katrina, "everybody went south to haul trash, where they could make more than they were making here," says Steve Byrd, superintendent and quality control on the project. Then Rita hit, and the equipment shortage got worse. "It took us four and six months to do what should have taken about two weeks to haul dirt for fill because we didn't have any trucks," Byrd says.
Townsco was originally scheduled to complete the project in the fall of 2005 but won an extension until this November and avoided liquidated damages.
There has also been internal raiding of workers, says Barry Blalock, district manager for the Corpus Christi office of MMR Constructors, Inc., a subgroup of the MMR Group, Baton Rouge.
The Baton Rouge operation had "an obscene number of people working for them after the storm because they were paying workers $10 an hour more than I was paying them here, plus hotel rooms and workers camps," says Blalock. "Anytime you try to do that massive amount of work in that short of time, you struggle to get people. But as long as you pay them, they will come."