On any given day in 2015, lots of pickup trucks could be seen in the temporary gravel parking area at 14 Sargeant Drive in Northeast Harbor. Under construction there is the 18,000-square-foot, $9.4-million Driftwood Cottage, a summer getaway for billionaire Steven M. Rales.
The house was designed by Keith Kroeger Associates of Bedford, N.Y., but local management of the project includes Greg Johnston of Southwest Harbor (civil engineer), John Caldwell of PCMS Construction Management in Ellsworth (project manager) and Mike Temple Inc. of Hampden (general contractor).
The firms and employees involved have signed non-disclosure agreements preventing them from discussing how or whether they’re working on the mansion, Michael Hewes of Blue Hill’s Hewes & Co. said. But he said his company worked on another, similar mansion in 2011 and 2012.
“Those were the two best years I ever had,” he said. “One of those jobs employs at least 50 people for two years. We don’t sneeze at that.”
He said that while it’s good for the community to have the work, these massive projects “suck up every available body,” and can pose a challenge for contractors trying to keep other work going.
“There’s a lot of competition around,” said Arnold “Bruiser” Sanborn of John Goodwin Jr. Construction in Southwest Harbor. “We can’t find good help.” Goodwin’s has not been involved with the Rales project, he said, but the number of people at work at that one site has exacerbated the local skilled labor shortage.
“Everybody’s looking at skilled worker issues,” Matthew Marks of Associated General Contractors (AGC) of Maine said. “Ninety percent of construction firms are less than 20 people. If you talk to anybody, they’re all struggling to find skilled tradespeople.”
He said some of the community colleges offer building construction programs, but most of those struggle to find interested students. AGC Maine has guaranteed any student who graduates from these programs a job.
AGC Maine is “still concerned about the number of people employed since we took a dive in 2006,” Marks said. “We lost 10,000 people in our industry. Once they leave, there’s work somewhere else, and [our members] are having trouble getting people to come back.” Some left the region and others moved to other industries, such as the energy sector to work on natural gas or wind projects.
The construction industry has made a slow climb back from that low a decade ago, he said. The Midcoast and Hancock County have been bright spots where, generally, there’s plenty of work.
“But we’re concerned the growth in Maine hasn’t been widespread,” Marks said. In June of 2015, AGC Maine reported that companies in the state employed 700 fewer construction workers than they did the summer before, prompting the national AGC to rank Maine 48th in the country for construction jobs.
During that 2006 slump, Sanborn said, Goodwin’s “didn’t shrink down on our employees but the work slowed down a lot.”
In recent years, work has picked up for the company, with residential site work and roads for subdivisions in Hancock and Washington counties. People are building, he said, especially on Mount Desert Island and in Hancock and Franklin. Goodwin’s has about 20 full-time employees.
Another Southwest Harbor contractor, Doug Gott & Sons, did reduce its workforce in the big slowdown 10 years ago, from a high of 65 people in 2005.
At the moment the company has 43 employees on the construction side of the business and seven on the garbage disposal side, Tim Gott said. All work is year-round and many have worked for Gott’s from 15 to 30 years.
Gott’s does lots of site and foundation work for new homes. “We poured floors up until two days before Christmas,” he said, “and we’re pouring foundations in January. We crush gravel all winter.”
They’re pouring a concrete retaining wall at another large estate, on the Indian Point Road in Bar Harbor, he said. They’ve also done several residential projects this year on Deer Isle, where Tim’s mother grew up.
Keeping staffing levels aligned with building contracts is especially challenging for smaller outfits, like Todd Hardy’s Eden Builders in Bar Harbor.
“One of the hardest things to do is have the perfect balance every day of the right amount of guys and the right amount of work,” Hardy said.
He has been a builder for more than 20 years, he said, but started Eden in 2008.
“The workload, and the possibilities for work, have been steady,” he said. It’s just a challenge to give each employee 40 hours of work a week, every week, no more and no less.
“I think the other contractors and I have good respect for each other,” Hardy said. “I’ve borrowed tools or equipment, we’ve helped each other out in different ways.” They’ve talked some about arranging to be able to share crews, too, but haven’t yet been able to make that work.
“The bigger jobs” such as Driftwood Cottage “are definitely taking resources. The labor pool is certainly smaller and it’s hard to find good people. But that’s always a struggle anyway.”
In the past Eden has included a crew of five plus Hardy. At the moment it’s two plus the boss. “My goal is to be back up to [a larger] capacity sooner rather than later. We’re not there now, not for a lack of potential work, but for a lack of finding the right crew.”