Builders Try to Solve Shortfall of Labor, Materials

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Shortages of labor and materials continue to plague the home-building industry. Efforts are under way to ease the problems, however. The shortages "are bad but they may be easing up a bit," says Michael Carliner, economist with the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) in Washington. "Labor shortages have been very widespread, particularly for carpenters. Some materials - wallboards and insulation - have been problems as well."

The situation "is disrupting construction schedules," he says. "Builders are having trouble getting houses completed on time. That's the main thing. They have to scramble to find people and materials."

This "is one of several factors that is creating upward pressure on prices," he says.

His advice for new-home buyers: "Discuss the possibility of a construction delay with the builder. Make sure you're not left homeless."

Bob Simmons, vice president of Gaithersburg-based builder Kettler Forlines, offers further advice: "Deal with a company that's been around a long time. . . . Kettler Forlines is relying on 30 years of integrity" in relationships with suppliers and subcontractors.

He acknowledges that shortages have slowed delivery of new homes and raised prices. But "we have significantly less of a problem" than some other builders, he adds.

Mr. Carliner and others in the building industry point out the shortages have resulted from a thriving economy that has demand outstripping supply.

"Short-term labor markets overall are very tight, especially in the construction trades. This really tight labor market is not going to [exist] all the time. The economy changes," Mr. Carliner says.

"But we have to work on long-term supply" of labor by developing education programs and skills training for people entering the work force.

Meanwhile, also because of the strength of the economy, the gypsum wallboard industry "can't keep up with the demand," says Mike Kennedy, general manager of sales for the Reston-based Lafarge Corp.

Lafarge manufactures wallboard and other construction materials at plants around the country and in Canada.

Lafarge and other wallboard manufacturers have responded to the shortage by building more plants. His company's existing plant in Wilmington, Del., will be able to supply Washington-area builders more wallboard by the middle of next year, he says, because Lafarge will open a new plant in Kentucky in the spring to supply Southern states. This will "free up more product" from Wilmington for the Washington area.

Other wallboard manufacturers have new plants coming on line late this year and in early 2000, Mr. Kennedy says. Lafarge also has another plant scheduled to open in Florida in 2001.

"The cumulative effect will relieve the shortage," he says.

An effort to resolve the labor shortage was launched last month with the creation of a nonprofit group called the Construction Technology Education Foundation (CTEF), says Len Mills, executive vice president of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association (NVBIA).

Participants in CTEF include "lots of very important people," among them builders, remodelers, vocational school teachers and representatives of Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and George Mason University, says Mr. Mills, who is on the CTEF board of directors.

Bill Mercer, a vice president of CTEF, is a builder who heads the building technology program at NOVA. "A lot of different organizations have been taking a lot of different approaches" to resolve the labor shortage, he says. …