The company said in its latest earnings report that half its total $36.5-billion backlog is now in energy and chemicals projects. Says a spokesman, "We have our own proprietary training programs on-site to supplement college training classes."

Fluor, like other firms, also sees modularization as a way to get more with less in terms of employee numbers and productivity. The firm has been using modular construction in remote locations, such as Russia's Sakhalin Island.

Seaton told analysts that the firm's modular design approach lowers the cost of facilities and allows it to manage labor "off of the jobsite into a more controlled environment, thus improving schedule and quality." He says the approach "has had a positive effect on our competitive stance on those projects."

But not all firms agree on the approach. "It helps, but it's just shifting hours from point A to point B—it doesn't reduce work hours," says one contractor.

CURT is expanding efforts in its new Construction Labor Market Analyzer database to assess workforce needs in projects under way or planned, using information from owners as well as from contractors, unions and other sources. The tool can now track about $3.2 trillion in construction spending, Daniel Groves, CURT operations director, told ENR.

The group also will launch in January a web-based version of a workforce development tool that will rate contractors on commitment to craft training and quality, and hopes owners will be use as a selection tool, said Don Whyte, a key developer of the metric for CURT, who also is president of the National Center for Construction Education and Research, an open-shop craft training program, now called NCCER.

He said at a September CURT meeting that the tool's  "labor posture is neutral."

‘Totally Maxed Out’

States also are becoming key players in the workforce development push. Hurricane Katrina recovery pushed Louisiana to accelerate craft training in 2005, says Edward L. Rispone, chairman of Baton Rouge contractor ISC Group and an early participant in the effort. "Governor [Bobby] Jindal came to my house, and we went over the recommendations," he says.

ABC has been working with state community and technical colleges to determine opportunities in recruitment and training and where demand is highest. The state Legislature in June appropriated $251 million to expand technical education and training capacity in 2015.

"Technical colleges, community colleges, union apprenticeship programs—everyone is escalating their programs," says ABC's Clouatre. He notes a recent agreement between ABC and the colleges to expand NCCER-based industrial-craft class offerings during the day.

The group also is working with 900 students in 45 high schools. "Our training and education efforts offered at night are totally maxed out," says Clouatre. "We don't push this training as a job but as an opportunity to have a career," he says.

There are agreements with unions, as well, to boost training, says the Louisiana craft development plan. "We are starting to get more traction with high school guidance counselors and parents when they see what a journeyman ironworker can earn with near-zero costs for training," says Walter Wise, general president of the Ironworkers' union. "It's cheaper than college, and a trade offers a good career choice."

A 2011 Harvard University study termed apprenticeship programs "a well-kept secret" and said graduates of "the best community colleges often earn more, and have a far clearer sense of direction, that some counterparts with BAs."

Louisiana also is pushing to have federal Pell grants to cover short-term construction training, such as in welding, and to offset tuition. While craft training got a 20% state funding boost this year, proponents want more money added to the state budget for 2014-15.

NCCER has produced curricula in 60 craft areas, but some contractors are concerned that, where needs are high for trained and certified workers, there is not sufficient participant access to its materials.

"It's the Achilles' heel of the open shop," says Randy Walker, vice president of S&B Engineers and Constructors, Houston. The firm has developed its own specialized training to progress craft skills in tasks such as bending conduit or pulling wire, he says.

Contractors and educators say Texas has moved more slowly to boost industry candidates, but this summer the state legislature enacted its Fast-Start program, which will allow students to earn degrees and certificates—based on standards met, rather than on classroom hours accumulated—more quickly in high-demand fields.

The state also passed a bill that changes state high school curriculum rules to allow students to take two courses in career and technical fields, says Marshall Schott, vice chancellor of Lone Star College, a fast-growing state community college that will provide course content.

"This opens the door to dual credit in the technical space," says Schott, who terms the new law "a real game-changer."

He says creating more "stackable credentials" will help make students employable, even if they drop out of school. Schott says the approach has been used for some time in Europe but not in the U.S. However, other academics say expedited skills programs are growing across the U.S., such as in Ohio and Indiana.

On Nov. 8, construction-sector analyst Andrew Wittman of R.W. Baird noted "some easing in prior cost escalation fears" on Gulf energy projects, saying, "The more measured pace of ... development has afforded time to plan for and train craft-labor talent with project sponsors seemingly recognizing the risks involved without an adequate labor supply in place."

But some contractors believe the industry is still not doing enough in workforce development to meet shortfall projections. The time for talk is over," says S&B's Walker. "Action is 18 to 24 months late."