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$6-billion LNG project in Hackberry, La., set to break ground next month, will challenge region's craft-labor supply.

The construction craft and professional worker shortage is worsening, says a new Associated General Contractors' survey of 1,000 construction firms, but the workforce outlook did not appear to daunt chemical giant Sasol from making, on Oct. 27, a final investment decision for its $8.1-billion ethane cracker in Lake Charles, La., that anticipates a 5,000-person peak building workforce.

In its Oct. 22 survey, AGC says 83% of U.S. respondents report some difficulties filling craft jobs—particularly roofers, carpenters and operators—up from 74% a year ago. Some 61% of firms note challenges in filling white-collar slots, including project supervisors and estimators, up from 53%.

About 72% of respondents are exclusively or primarily open-shop contractors, and 40% said they performed $10 million or less of work in 2013.

While nearly 60% of firms have boosted base pay for craft and professional workers, 40% are losing employees to non-construction sectors. One construction executive cites a 20% retirement rate since 2009. "It's worrisome because half of them were superintendents and others were highly skilled," he says.

Northeast contractors report the least difficulty tapping the worker pipeline, with 53%— exceeding the national figure—at least satisfied with the quality of skills and training.

Turning more work over to subcontractors was a strategy for 48% of respondents, but specialty firms are also labor-challenged and have limited project work they can handle, says Michael Kenig, vice chair of Holder Constructio, Atlanta.

Firms, particularly in the megaproject-heavy South, are turning to other approaches. On the Sasol project, won by a Fluor-Technip team, Fluor executive Jim Brittain cites reliance on the firm's "modular execution and global supply-chain expertise."

A Fluor spokesman says the firm "planning for the EPC phase for a year. We attended a number of hiring events in southwest Louisiana for the past year and have built a strong database of interested candidates."

He says the company's Houston office will manage the project with support from our office in the Philippines.

Two nearby LNG project have just begun: Cheniere Energy's $5-billion project near Freeport, Texas, and Sempra Energy's $6-billion project in Hackberry, La.

But survey respondents from the South—93% of whom are entirely or mostly non-union—are concerned about the quality of local training programs; 86% report more difficulties in finding qualified workers.