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A New Jersey homebuilder who pays his workers over $100,000 wants young people to know construction can be a lucrative career that doesn't require college — and businesses are desperate to hire

May 13, 20244 min read
  • Michael Bodei, a seasoned construction business owner, is struggling to find skilled labor amid a national shortage.

  • The US construction industry is short about 500,000 workers due to limits on immigration and disinvestment in trade schools.

  • Despite high wages, stigma around the building trades and more flexible job alternatives are deterring new workers.

When Michael Bodei went into construction 31 years ago, it was a faster way to make the kind of salary he wanted than becoming a lawyer, the other career option he was weighing.

Bodei's family has been in the construction business for generations, so he'd seen how lucrative it could be to build and renovate upscale single-family homes in affluent suburbs. At 22, Bodei started his own general and building contracting company, Bodei Contracting, in Morristown, New Jersey. By 25, he'd done well enough to buy a lake house, a boat, a new Corvette, a motorcycle, and two trucks, he said.

"It wasn't because I was a genius, it was because it was that easy to get into my business and be successful," Bodei told Business Insider. "Houses were cheaper, everything was more abundant. It was just an easier place in time to do business than it is now."

One of the keys to his success: "more skilled less expensive labor," Bodei said.

Most of his employees — a core group of about a dozen people that expands to around 30 in busy times — have worked for the company for decades. Their projects are largely six-figure kitchen and bathroom renovations and additions on $2 million to $5 million homes. And because of the nature of this high-end work, Bodei generally doesn't hire anyone without at least 10 years of experience, he said.

But with a national shortage of construction workers, it's become increasingly difficult to find new workers, from electricians and plumbers to those with specialty skills in fiberglass work and cabinetry, Bodei said. A pipeline of younger skilled workers just isn't there. "There is no one to replace us," he added. He worries that as older workers retire, their skills will be lost.

"It's unusual for anybody under 40 to be working for us, people under 50 are unusual," he said. "One of our carpenters is in his 70s."

While the rising cost of housing is in large part a result of restrictive zoning laws and building regulations, the construction worker shortage is also pushing up home costs. Fewer construction workers means less — and slower — residential construction, which in turn leads to higher home prices.

Bodei has seen even affluent customers balk at prices, which are also elevated by the rising costs of construction materials.

"There's a limit to what anyone's going to pay," he said. "Even wealthy people get to a point where it becomes ridiculous."

A labor shortage years in the making

The US has faced a severe shortage of construction workers of all sorts for years. When the financial crisis crushed the housing market in 2008, the construction industry took a massive hit. But even though demand for housing and infrastructure has surged since then, the workers haven't come back.

This year, the construction industry is short about 500,000 workers — and that's "on top of the normal pace of hiring," according to a January 2024 news release from the trade group Associated Builders and Contractors.

Part of the issue is limits on immigration. But a perhaps more structural cause is the gradual disinvestment in technical and trade schools in favor of colleges and universities.

"We need to get more people interested in construction as a career," Ken Simonson, chief economist at the Associated General Contractors of America, recently told Business Insider. Adding that everyone from the federal government to school guidance counselors needs to "get the message to kids that there are lucrative rewarding — both financially and in satisfaction — careers in construction. You don't have to go to college to have a good career."

Wages are quite high in the industry, especially for skilled tradespeople. Most of Bodei's employees make at least $100,000 a year, he said. But construction has lost some of its edge as compensation in other industries, including restaurants and hospitality, has risen, and remote and hybrid jobs offer cushier, more flexible alternatives, Simonson said.

And there's long been a widespread stigma around working in the building trades, despite the relatively high salaries they offer.

"Even when I was in school, you were discouraged from going because that was where the stupid kids went, which is hilarious because you could go make six figures as a plumber in your mid-20s," Bodei said.

Bodei would be worried about the future of construction, but it won't be his problem for much longer. He's planning to close his business next year and relocate to South Florida, where he also has real estate investments — and easy access to the beach. "I'm gonna go relax for a while," he said. "And then figure out what my next thing is."

©BusinessInsider

Construction Business OwnerSkilled Labor ShortageUS Construction IndustryHigh Wages in ConstructionUpscale Home RenovationsNational Shortage of Construction WorkersRising Cost of HousingDisinvestment in Trade Schools
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