Construction firms, once starved for work during the downturn, now say they cannot find enough qualified talent to take on new projects. The problem is likely to get worse, firms say.

"Everyone is afraid that we are going to get to a point where we were in 2006-7, where we had a shortage of skilled workers," explains Brian Turmail, spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America. The trade group on Sept. 4 released the results of a survey it performed this summer on worker shortages. Seventy-four percent of the roughly 700 respondents reported a crunch in skilled trades, while 53% said they could not find enough construction professionals, such as supervisors, estimators and engineers.

AGC expected that engineer shortages would be the largest problem, Turmail adds. "What came out is that people are more worried about and having a hard time finding craft workers," he says.

Of the skilled trades, contractors ranked laborers, carpenters, equipment operators, cement masons, and pipefitters and welders as the top-five positions needing to be filled. Oil-and-gas projects siphoned off many certified equipment operators, while other trade workers hung up their tool belts to pursue other jobs during the downturn, Turmail says, adding, "We need to reinvigorate the domestic pipeline for training and preparing construction workers."

The skills gap is a global problem across most technical industries, notes Edward E. Gordon, a Chicago-based workforce consultant and author of "Future Jobs: Solving the Employment and Skills Crisis." By 2020, the U.S. alone will lose a million construction workers while another million jobs will be created, requiring two million new craft workers.

"The world is falling off the talent cliff," says Gordon. "I'm sorry, but I'm not confident that the economy is going to do well mainly because we don't have enough people to do the work."

A new international accounting standard that allows firms to book research-and-development costs as a capital investment, not as an expense, could change the game, if the U.S. expanded it to include training and education, says Gordon.

"If that occurred, I believe, for the first time, you would have a financial metric on a balance sheet to show those investments, and then you could track their performance," Gordon says. Trade unions, which slowed new apprenticeships during the downturn, remain more upbeat about the long-term outlook.

"Nearly 50% of our applicants today are four-year college graduates," says James Sweeney, president and business manager of operating engineers' union Local 150 near Chicago. In four to five years, he says, "we are going to have some of the best, well-educated operators."

This article was corrected on Sept. 26, 2013. The accounting standard mentioned in the article does not associate training and education with R&D, as indicated in the original story.