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Labor Shortage

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Labor Shortage

The Lexington, Kentucky, government is looking for an HVAC inspector with six years in the field as a journeyman and a certification from the ICC for mechanical inspections of one- and two-family dwellings. The city can’t find anyone.

“We’re going to have to drop one of those requirements … in order to get somebody to qualify for the job,” says Alex “Cash” Olszowy III, Lexington’s building inspection manager for residential construction and president of the ICC Board of Directors. “We’ve had to get a little innovative in [human resources].”

Lexington is not the only city that has had trouble filling vacant jobs for building inspectors, plan reviewers and code department managers since residential and commercial construction started ramping back up. “We’re seeing a shortage all over the country,” notes Henry Green, president of the National Institute of Building Sciences. “Just about all of the code officials I talk to say they’re seeing a greater demand in their communities, but they don’t have the resources for the projects.”

Dominic Sims, the ICC’s chief executive officer, says the labor shortage is most acute in California, Florida, Colorado and “wherever there’s a resurgence” in construction. “Our members are all feeling the effects.”

The makings of the shortage of code officials began in 2007 at the start of the housing crash, when home prices took a nosedive, foreclosures spiked, mortgage financing started to dry up, and one construction firm after another shuttered its job sites. City governments, with fewer buildings to inspect and construction plans to review, followed suit, laying off inspectors. Lexington, for example, whittled its staff of 36 inspectors to 28 between 2005 and 2010, Olszowy recalls, and still hasn’t replaced the eight it let go.

It’s unlikely the city could replace them, at least with inspectors who have deep backgrounds in the construction trades, even if government leaders wanted to. Many of those former code officials retired early or found jobs outside of the industry. Any experienced, qualified trades who remain are in high demand by other cities, by privately owned, third-party inspection companies, by residential and commercial builders, and by engineering and architecture firms. So competition for employees is fierce.

And it’s about to get fiercer. A summer 2014 survey by the ICC and NIBS forecast a mass exodus of building officials over the next 15 years: More than 80% of existing code professionals plan to retire by 2029, the study of 3,850 code administration and enforcement specialists revealed. Almost one-third will leave within five years.

One reason: Nearly 85% of those professionals are older than 45, the survey noted. And too few young replacements—especially those with experience in the building trades—are lining up behind them.

In fact, jobs in code enforcement historically have attracted experienced trades who either can’t find construction work or who want to ease into a less physically demanding occupation as they age. At a time when construction jobs are plentiful—and pay substantially more than government work—fewer trades are making the switch.

The ICC/NIBS survey noted that the bulk of code professionals earn between $50,000 and $74,000 a year. Still, starting salaries could be lower. Olszowy notes that Lexington starts its newcomers at $40,000.

Like Olszowy, Jay Elbettar, regional director for the third-party inspection service Charles Abbott Associates, says his Mission Viejo, California, shop is revising its hiring requirements. “We would prefer to hire experienced building officials who could hit the ground faster,” says Elbettar, who doubles as secretary/treasurer of the ICC Board of Directors. “Newbies need six months of training. … That’s a drain on our resources.”

That’s if the company—and city code departments—can find people to hire. In the meantime, Elbettar says, cities run the risk of falling behind on permitting and inspections. And in the worst cases, they could rush through inspections, or skip them altogether.

The solution, says Green: “We’re going to have to have an infusion of new inspection personnel.”

Green says cities may have to start recruiting their next inspectors directly from engineering and architectural schools. And the ICC has launched a mini-training course for high school and technical school students, just to make them aware that opportunities in the construction industry exist for young adults without college degrees.

“Getting exposure is an important step to solving the problem,” notes Sims, whose organization has 58,000 members. About one-third of them are building officials and inspectors.

The ICC also is enticing former code officials to come back to the field. For them, the ICC will expedite the renewal of lapsed certifications.

Sims also points to an increase in the number of cities that are sharing code officials with other jurisdictions, using third-party inspectors or contracting inspections out to engineering firms.

“We’re really trying to ramp up what we’re doing in regard to inspectors,” Green says.

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