Learning the Trades

By Hannah Wallace February 28, 2005

Most of the 21,000 skilled laborers in Sarasota and Manatee are in their 40s and 50s and nearing retirement, causing fears of a grave labor shortage in the construction industry. Filling these spots isn't as easy as hiring someone off the street either. The work is demanding and, like any job, requires adequate training for quality work.

Area construction companies, Sarasota and Manatee school districts, the Suncoast Workforce Board and several trade associations united their efforts in 2001 to develop a two-year pre-apprenticeship program for high school students called Construction Technology Careers to reverse this trend. Students in both counties can begin training in their sophomore year, with a goal of earning $30,000 a couple of years after graduation.

CTC trains students in skilled labor shortage fields such as carpentry, painting, concrete works, plumbing, welding, electrical works, heavy equipment operations, HVAC, sprinkler fitting, ironworks, electronic systems, mobile crane operations, pipefitting and metal building assembly.

Dennis Neal, owner of Advanced Masonry Systems, says the number of apprenticeship occupations has shrunk since the 1980s, when Florida was more unionized: "At the time we weren't putting 20-year-olds into spots; even then workers were in their 40s. Many of the skilled craftspeople are getting up in age and five to 15 years from now they will no longer be able to do those projects." Neal says this shortage slows down construction projects, which is an important reason companies are eager to hire anyone with training. "Companies used to be able to gather plumbers, for instance, within a week's notice on any given project," he says. "Today, it can take several weeks."

Jay Brady, executive director of the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange, says most high schools don't offer construction arts classes anymore because school districts have been steering students toward university education and encouraging computer training rather than construction training.

CTC students attend their Manatee or Sarasota county high school in the morning, then train at Manatee Technical Institute or Sarasota County Technical Institute in the afternoon. Dedicated students find summer jobs with participating companies. Should they wish to pursue further training they find a construction company to sponsor a two-year apprenticeship, earning 900 credit hours in their desired skill such as plumbing or HVAC.

"Not just anyone can get a job with a respected construction company. Developers don't want untrained laborers doing shoddy work on expensive homes," says Brady. What's difficult for the construction industry is finding laborers who care about their work, who want to learn more about it, who've sought means to gain education for it. A simple tool CTC equips them with is OSHA and CPR training, which gives a laborer added value because of the decreased liability risk they pose.

Mary Helen Kress, executive director of the Suncoast Workforce Board and a founding member of CTC, says construction jobs offer benefits packages and a graduated pay scale. These incentives lure workers into the field, who often want to open their own company within a few years after their apprenticeship.

"There's such a shortage of workers that companies are competitive with each other," says Kress. "If one company pays a little more than another and if they're offering a benefits package, the worker will easily go with them. Some of those packages include disability insurance, accident insurance, health insurance and, in some cases, dental."

Carol Darling, assistant director of Sarasota County Technical Institute, says the number of participating CTC students at her institute more than doubled since last year.

"Earning $16.24 per-hour looks pretty good when you've been working minimum wage," she says about a typical rate for workers who've trained with CTC.

For more information about this program go to

What They Earn

Mean hourly wages in the trades in Sarasota/Manatee.

Brick/blockmasons: $14.29 per hour, entry $11.50

Carpenters: $14.71, entry $10.26

Cement masons and concrete finishers:$13.23, entry $9.72

Construction managers: $31.59, entry $19.64

Drywall and ceiling tile installers: $13.79, entry 11.18

Electricians: $14.17, entry $10.82

First-line construction supervisors: $22.50, entry $15.42

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