Phoenix Expansion Stretches Workforce in Building Industry

Article excerpt

PHOENIX _ A happy man, Fred Keene stood beside his yellow bulldozer the other day as it idled among the century-old saguaro cactuses of the Sonora Desert and said, "Busy, busy, busy."

"I'm working nonstop," he added. "I've turned down work. Just turned down a job Monday night _ no time to do it."

Keene and the Caterpillar D-9H bulldozer he bought a year ago are part of a building boom that is gobbling up the desert around Phoenix at the rate of an acre an hour. Wide swaths of homes and shops are spreading outward from the city where only cactus, jack rabbits and rattlesnakes had been before.

"In a year this will all be houses," said Keene, standing in the afternoon sun on a development site zoned for 4,500 homes. Only a new two-lane blacktop road now cuts into the desert on the eastern edge of the city, its concrete curb sides neatly finished and already marked with speed-limit signs.

Phoenix, one of the nation's fastest-growing cities, is expanding so rapidly that it can barely find enough construction workers to do the job. Builders are raising wages as they bid for one another's skilled craftsmen, and the average time it takes to complete a typical house has increased from about three months to more than five months.

"It's causing the contractor to pay far more today for the same guy that he was complaining about yesterday not knowing a hammer from a screwdriver," said David Wilkinson, an official of the local branch of Associated Builders and Contractors. "They're desperate."

They are so desperate that the top 10 contractors in Arizona spent an average of $14,000 each over the last three months on national advertising to attract workers, particularly electricians, welders, pipe fitters, masons, roofers and carpenters.

Skilled workers are in short supply almost everywhere, particularly in parts of the South and the Midwest, even though new home construction has cooled because of rising interest rates, said Charlie Hawkins, executive vice president of Associated Builders and Contractors, an industry group based in Rosslyn, Va.

But few areas are building as fast as metropolitan Phoenix, which has 2.4 million people, 400,000 more than in 1990. Arizona continues to attract many new residents and businesses from California, by cutting its taxes and keeping its regulations simple.

Critics of the pell-mell development warn of growing congestion and air pollution, rising crime and a strain on public services, but they are greatly outnumbered in the city government.

The boom extends to commercial construction, including a burgeoning computer-chip industry clustered along the edges of its freeways in almost every direction, Wilkinson said.

In downtown Phoenix, construction includes a science museum, an art museum, a museum of history, a new library and a new home for the city's largest daily, The Arizona Republic.

Housing permits in the Phoenix area for detached single-family houses rose from 21,896 in 1993 to 26,614 last year, the highest since its record of about 28,000 permits in 1978, said Jay Q. Butler, an analyst at the Arizona Real Estate Center. …