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This Treasure Valley construction journeyman has toughed it out

Sitting on his porch on a sunny May evening, J.P. Riley cracks a post-work Pabst Blue Ribbon with his wife, Lisa, and smokes a Camel.

Riley, a sheet metal worker at Hobson Fabricating in East Boise, started his workday at 6:30 a.m. on Micron Technology’s East Boise campus. Riley, who can fashion raw metal into roofing, siding, hand rails or anything else you need, spent the day making and installing ventilation ducts.

His porch overlooks an American flag and a driveway with three Chevrolet pickups: 2001, 1996 and 1982 vintages, all self-maintained.

“I just don’t have that many expenses,” Riley says. “My cars are cheap. Sometimes, it’s 110 degrees, and I have no air conditioning. That’s fine.”

Times are good and work is plentiful. Riley says he earned about $45,000 last year, toward the upper end for the trade. He and his wife, Lisa, bought their first home last year in Mountain Home. But he hasn’t forgotten the recession that forced him to leave the Valley to find work.

During the recession, he watched tradesmen lose homes and vehicles when local work dried up. Riley counsels newcomers to his 230-member union, Sheet Metal Workers Local 55, to save their money in case the work goes away again.

TRADEOFFS AND SACRIFICES

In 2009, Riley started making long treks to job sites in Burley and Ontario, but most of his jobs were far out of state. He traveled to Pasco, Wash., sometimes for months at a time. The money was good, sometimes $10,000 a month, nearly three times more than he would earn in Idaho.

The Rileys talked about moving to Pasco, but work eventually returned to the Valley, persuading them to stay. Other trade workers did not, says Aaron Gray, president of the AFL-CIO, an umbrella for many Idaho unions, including Local 55.

The shortage of journeymen — graduates of four-year training programs in their trades — is creating problems for general contractors, says Keith Jones, owner of Datum Construction in Meridian.

Jones says he can find landscapers or concrete workers. But journeymen who have graduated from four-year apprenticeship programs, such as carpenters, electricians, plumbers and drywallers, are scarce “across the board.”

“There are good subcontractors that are well-organized and capable of doing more volume, but they are limited by their manpower,” Jones says. “There are plenty of opportunities in construction, but we lost a large percentage of skilled people amid the downturn, and we haven’t gathered them back yet.”

The AFL-CIO’s Gray says they won’t return.

In the recession, many workers fled to Oregon, Washington and North Dakota for work. Then they stayed there for higher wages. For example, electricians — Gray’s trade — now earn about $40 an hour in Seattle versus $28 in the Valley, he says.

Other union members went to college to pursue degrees in new fields.

“It was all of those factors,” he says. “Those people aren’t coming back.”

Brett Myron, Idaho vice president of Meridian general contractor Petra Inc., says subcontractors are stretched thin by the Valley’s building boom. One of Petra’s recent projects — The Terraces of Boise senior community in East Boise — was particularly hard to complete on time because subcontractors were shorthanded, Myron says.

And subcontractors are now demanding higher prices, boosting project costs, Myron says.

But journeyman wages — often starting at $40,000 or more — aren’t attracting apprentices the way Myron or anybody else in the local construction industry would like.

A FEW MORE APPRENTICES

“We’re hoping that as subcontractors get busier, the opportunities increase and the younger generation is willing to go into those fields,” Myron says. “But we don’t see a silver bullet.”

There is hope. Valley apprenticeship programs have rebounded with the economy, Gray says. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 291 brought about 50 students into its latest class of apprentices. Fewer than 10 signed up each year during the recession, he says.

Riley’s union, which holds classes twice a week near the Boise Airport, graduated three journeyman sheet-metal workers one year amid the recession. Now, 26 are enrolled.

Gray says he is encouraged by rising enrollment, but he still struggles to come up with reasons why union members should stay in Idaho instead of chasing higher wages in Washington or Oregon.

“That’s hard,” he says. “They can make $12 or $15 an hour more in those places.”

Brandon Romero, a partner in Advanced Heating and Cooling, a Meridian subcontractor, says he would like to add 10 to 20 employees to his 90-employee roster. Romero says he has had some success recruiting from Seattle, Portland and Salt Lake City, but not enough to offset the loss of about half of the Valley’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning workers during the downturn.

Romero’s employees aren’t union members, but they still need four years of training to become licensed journeymen. Romero’s company offers to pay for schooling, but despite the chance to earn $20 to $25 an hour after becoming a journeyman, few people are willing to commit, he says.

Romero says he’d like to see Idaho adopt a two-year certificate as other states have to lessen the burden.

“To commit to four years, that’s basically a college degree,” Romero says. “They have to work in the day. They have families and bills to pay, and then they have to go to school on top of it. That’s tough.”

SOBER OUTLOOK

Riley, 41, remembers his first summer on the job in 1999. It was hot in the Treasure Valley. He crawled through ducts, collecting dead pigeons. He earned $7.04 an hour.

Today, he is sometimes the oldest worker on job sites. Since a $1-per-hour raise took effect June 1, sheet metal journeymen on union-negotiated contracts earn $25.41 an hour.

Three years ago, when Riley worked in Pasco, the months away from home were hard on the family.

“When I first started traveling out of the state, the boy was 3. We lost some of that closeness,” Riley says. “My wife had to juggle the kids and the bills while I was off. It was strenuous. Stressful.”

They decided to wait until their daughter, Callie, then a junior at Mountain Home High School, graduated. Both J.P. and Lisa came from military families, and the Mountain Home Air Force Base brought them there in the first place. They didn’t worry about their then-6-year-old son, Connell, adjusting, but they did not want to uproot Callie.

Callie says she missed her go-to homework helper when Riley was in Pasco.

“Homework was a lot harder, especially math homework,” she says. “Discipline was different. Things were a lot different.”

Callie graduated in 2014 and now works at Lithia Ford Lincoln in Boise. She lives with her parents and helps her father work on engines in the garage.

Riley says he is sympathetic to employers already struggling with rising labor and materials costs. But wages fell during the recession, and rising health insurance costs have soaked up most of the recent gains.

“Wages have gone up but not like they should have,” he says. “The recession hurt. It hurt bad.”

Riley says 56 cents of his recent $1-an-hour raise will go to health insurance, for which he pays $360 a week to cover his family. The other 44 cents will be split between his retirement and his pocket.

Riley says he makes a good living. He and his wife are saving more money now that she is working a warehouse job on the air base. He takes solace in the fact that he could pick up stakes and chase higher wages if paying the mortgage ever became dicey.

But he doesn’t expect the good years to last, and he is not buying a new Chevy pickup anytime soon.

“[Construction demand and work] is going to climb, and then all of a sudden, the people building buildings are going to say, ‘Let’s hold on a second. Let’s see how this plays out,’ ” Riley says. “That will happen again.”

Zach Kyle: 208-377-6464, @IDS_ZachKyle. This story appears in the June 15-July 19, 2016 edition of the Statesman’s Business Insider magazine as part of a special section on commercial construction. Click here for the e-edition (subscription required).

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