Joe Tollari’s search for workers doesn’t seem complicated.

First, he would like someone who can measure the dimensions of a 2-inch-by-4-inch board, so many feet long. But Tollari and other construction industry employers who set up at booths at a recent construction job fair said it’s hard to find youngsters who know how to read a tape measure. 

“Basic construction skills are becoming a lost art,” said Tollari, the owner of Metro Heating and Cooling in Des Moines. And that’s not just a veteran in the industry complaining about the younger generation. Tollari is worried that he won’t be able to keep enough skilled workers on staff to meet demand for his services. In fact, the shortage has already meant that Tollari has had to turn down jobs.

It was a common concern among the vendors who posted “help wanted” signs during a job fair March 4 at the Iowa State Fairgrounds. The Home Builders Association of Greater Des Moines sponsored the job fair after crunching the numbers on new houses expected to be built this year and finding that there might not be enough workers to build them.

Home builders and their subcontractors need people who can swing a hammer, draw and read a blueprint, estimate the cost of a job, and deliver lumber and other supplies. The list doesn’t stop there. It includes every phase of the business, from receptionists to roofers.

If they could find the workers, contractors could add 19,000 jobs this year, given the pent-up demand for new homes. But they are plagued by a range of hiring problems: Baby boomers are retiring from the workforce; some construction workers fled the industry or were forced to leave during a shortage of work that occurred during the recession; and it’s a sweaty business.

“Kids aren’t used to doing manual labor,” Tollari said.

There are a range of programs in Greater Des Moines to train young construction workers. Des Moines Area Community College urged students in its construction program to attend. Five dropped off applications with Tollari. There are programs directed at high school students, although not through the formal framework of the public school system, and even a program for Eagle Scouts.

About 120 job seekers attended the job fair.

Still, “there are not enough hands to do the work,” Tollari said.

Metro Heating and Cooling has nine employees, and Tollari would like to hire another five. He has installers to promote to designers, but he has no one to take their place.

Tollari focuses on custom homes, a niche he says young workers should find enticing because it offers some variety every day. That pitch doesn’t sell very well, he said.

Creighton Cox, executive officer of the home builders association, said contractors were reluctant to hire during the 2013 building boom because they were not convinced the good times would last. But the economy has improved to the point where construction companies believe they can hire for the long term.

A worker shortage has forced Waukee-based Gilcrest/Jewett Lumber Co. to pay for referrals for delivery truck drivers, said Paula Meck, the company’s human resources manager.

The company has a “help wanted” sign along Alice’s Road in Waukee, and Meck said there is no dress code for applicants.

“It’s the only place I’ve ever worked where people can stop in in shorts to apply for a job,” Meck said. She has worked for Gilcrest/Jewett since September 2013 after moving to Iowa from Texas.

She said there is more required of the worker than just driving a truck. It has to be loaded and unloaded. And drivers have to operate forklifts at job sites, where they might need to set a pallet of shingles on a roof or maneuver a load of drywall through tight spaces.

Gilcrest/Jewett provides the training, if the applicants have a commercial driver’s license. Meck pointed out that there are study guides on the Internet to help pass the commercial driving test. In addition to truck drivers, the company also needs workers who spend their days compiling orders for construction materials.

The lumberyard is busy and Meck expects it to get busier in April.

That lure of manual labor might not be so appealing to younger workers, said Kerry Sullivan, director of career services for ITT Technical Institute in Clive. 

She attended the job fair to find out which companies were hiring, what type of workers they needed and to get a measure of the job market for the school’s students.

ITT will have a new class of up to 250 graduates this month.

Sullivan said her students have skills that are in demand. There especially is a need for  technical drawers.

“The job market is looking more promising,” she said, but added that it is difficult to draw young people into the construction industry.

“It is hard work,” Sullivan said. “We really have a need for skilled people to create and build. Otherwise, we’re not going to have any infrastructure.”