March 28, 2002

2002: A slow year for construction grads

  • Interns getting more leads than job seekers
    Special to the Journal

    Despite a dearth of new projects in the Puget Sound, Colin Skone believes he’ll find a promising construction job after he graduates from the University of Washington in June.

    He’ll be leaving the university’s Department of Construction Management with a versatile degree and is staying positive about a sluggish job market.

    “There are actually more people hiring than I thought,” said the UW senior at the department’s annual career fair.

    Construction firms at the recent UW career fair advertised few summer internships and even fewer actual jobs than in recent years.

    Still, contractors and HR representatives agreed enterprising seniors with flexible plans should see plenty of work.

    But if students want to get hired, they can expect to compete.

    Construction firms are competing, too.

    PCL Construction Services recently bid for work on a $6 million garage in Renton. Doug Sprute, a senior estimator in PCL’s Bellevue office, said the job attracted 12 other firms.

    “We’re looking for work as much as everyone else is,” Sprute said.

    On average, graduating students received three to six job offers in 2000 and 2001, said Clark Pace, undergraduate program coordinator for UW construction management students.

    This year, Pace said, “many will be happy to get one.”

    Pace said many Puget Sound firms “are in a holding pattern right now.”

    “The companies all just seem to be looking for interns. They’re optimistic things will pick up, but they don’t know when,” Pace said.

    McKinstry Co., a Seattle subcontractor doing mechanical design/build work at the Seattle Seahawks stadium downtown, seeks interns who can deal with diverse clients on-site.

    Ned Gebert, vice president of operations, said intangible people skills do more for ambitious interns than hard skills in computers or math.

    “A lot of interns turn into full-time employees,” Gebert said.

    Future McKinstry interns could gain experience working on publicly funded projects like the stadium or on private projects like the new Microsoft campus in Issaquah and the new Washington Mutual Bank training center near Sea-Tac Airport.

    But McKinstry won’t hire as many interns as it did in recent summers.

    “When times are really rolling, we put up to six interns to work. This year, we’re looking for two or three,” Gebert said.

    Likewise, Sierra Construction Co., a Redmond general contractor, offered no job openings to UW students at the career fair. It may hire an intern or two, but there’s no guarantee.

    Contractor Dave Buckholtz said Sierra is banking on large jobs like the Mukilteo Water District and Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood.

    “Negotiated work has taken a hit,” he said. “We’re just trying to keep a constant revenue basis. Fees are a little tighter now. We’re working a little harder than normal to land the jobs.”

    One competitive edge for students graduating into a tight labor market is a willingness to travel, said Geri Kellison, career development manager for Poulsbo-based General Construction Co.

    Kellison said GCC, which does heavy marine, civil and industrial work, needs field engineers and construction managers on large civil projects such as the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Benecia Bridge, both in California.

    “People going into construction need to go where the work is. We may be able to put them to work in the Puget Sound, but then they could end up going to San Diego or Anchorage,” she said.

    That willingness could also lead to opportunities with Ledcor Industries, which is working on a Costco store in Arizona and may soon start on another in San Francisco.

    “They took advantage of me. I’m single, and I said I could travel,” said Oliver Andrews, an assistant program manager with the Mercer Island firm.

    Hoffman Construction Co. is happy to accept work in Arizona, California and as far as an Intel site in Israel.

    But Seattle the firm’s main focus — and most of its job opportunities — are on local projects such as City Hall, Seattle’s Justice Center and UW Medical Center, said representative Marjorie Chang.

    “It’s slower than in the past. I hope things turn around soon,” Chang said. “We have to re-evaluate our needs as well.”

    In addition to construction management degrees, Absher Construction Co.’s top candidates often have architecture experience and can do design/build work, said marketing manager Sean Lewis.

    Absher wasn’t trying to fill open positions at the career fair, and Lewis isn’t sure how many internships will be available. He said 2002 may be a slow hiring year. But Lewis noted six current Absher employees graduated from the UW program.

    “We’re following a period that was a banner year for everyone,” he said.

    Abhishele Gupta just started the UW construction program this quarter. Gupta said he earned a civil engineering degree before he moved to Seattle from India six months ago.

    But he’s even happier he has more than a year until graduation.

    “It seems like 90 percent of the positions are internships, and if there were three internships last year, now there are two,” he said.

    Ari Kramer is a Seattle-based freelance writer.

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