Eighty percent of the nearly 1,000 construction firms that responded to an Associated General Contractors of America survey said they plan to expand their payrolls in 2015. But shortages of skilled employees at the craft and professional levels continue to be a problem for many firms, according to the survey.

To attract more workers, firms are providing better benefit packages, but the problem persists, AGC economist Ken Simonson told reporters on Jan. 21.

Among respondents trying to hire workers, 87% report difficulties in filling positions. Walt Fegley, president and COO of Reno Contracting, San Diego, says a generation of workers is nearing retirement. Behind them, there is "quite a gap" in the numbers of both skilled and professional workers, he notes. A relatively down market over the past few years has exacerbated that gap, providing too few opportunities for younger engineers to gain the experience and skills they need to fill senior-level positions, Fegley says.

Some are noticing an influx of applicants from the energy sector who, due to the fallout from lower oil and gas prices, are looking to the construction industry for jobs. Antonio Ledezma, CEO of Commerce City, Colo.-based Jalisco International, says there is some crossover in skills between construction and energy work, although his firm is not actively recruiting from that sector.

The industry's union membership continues to climb. In 2014, construction union membership increased by approximately 53,000, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics' data released on Jan. 23. Adding to the increase reported by BLS in 2013, the two-year growth of membership in U.S. construction unions has reached 148,000. North America's Building Trade Union President Sean McGarvey says that number is a "reaffirmation" of a deliberate strategy by the unions to increase market share.