Hard Labor for the Mind

As the manager for a large construction company in Tacoma, Joel Rohrs wears many hats - only some of them hard.

For any one construction job - and he's usually working a couple - he's monitoring the budget of the building project, keeping it on schedule and hiring employees and subcontractors to work on the site.

"It's a very high-stress job," said Rohrs, a project manager for Rushforth Taylor Construction.

It's also in high demand.

As the industry continues to boom in Washington, companies need experienced construction managers, the people charged with planning, directing and coordinating projects.

Construction managers, along with several other construction-related positions, are hot in Pierce County, according to the Employment Security Department's list of in-demand jobs for the area.

When he started college at Washington State University, Rohrs planned to be an architect.

"But I found that construction management fit my personality better," he said.

The job requires a variety of skills, from people management to problem solving and all under the pressure of deadlines.

A construction site can change daily from excavating and pouring a building's foundation to framing rooms and adding finishing touches, such as trim or light fixtures.

"Construction sites are as dynamic as they come," Rohrs said. "You need to be able to roll with things and foresee what's coming."

For those who can, there are jobs aplenty.

Van Collins, district manager for the Associated General Contractors of Washington, said his members are having a hard time finding enough skilled people to do all the work. Collins works in Tacoma.

"Look at how many condos are coming online in the next few years," Collins said. "There's lots of commercial development and lots of public work."

The growth isn't relegated to one part of the industry, such as residential, he added.

The state's gas tax, which will pay for $9 billion in transportation projects, and other government spending also has been keeping contractors busy.

The industry has been hiring at a frenetic pace. Construction led the state in job growth last year.

The industry generated 19,300 new jobs, which accounts for about 20 percent of the state's total new jobs. Last month's employment numbers, though, show the industry hiring spree slowing a bit.

Still, Collins said the construction job market remains competitive for qualified people.

The state's universities are responding to the demand.

Washington State University's School of Architecture and Construction Management doubled the number of students enrolled in its construction management program to 50 starting this school year, said Gregory Kessler, the school's director.

Students who earn the four-year degree have a promising future.

"All of our graduates typically have two to three job offers by the time they graduate," Kessler said.

The graduates' salaries can start between $45,000 and $50,000. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics places the national median salary of a construction manager at almost $70,000.

Rohrs estimated project managers in the Puget Sound area make between $70,000 and $95,000.

The pay is good, but construction managers earn it with long hours.

Rohr recalled a project - a combined conference center, hotel and parking garage - he completed last year.

At one point, he worked nearly two straight days.

"I worked all day on the conference center, then we started to pour concrete at 10 p.m. and worked until 4 a.m.," he said.

For Rohrs, and many others in the construction field, seeing the finished product is worth all the work.

Rohrs keeps a photo album of his projects. There's the Redhook Ale breweries in Woodinville and Portsmouth, N.H. There's the Salem Conference Center and Phoenix Grand Hotel. He's now working on the Gig Harbor YMCA.

"When I can look at a picture of my buildings or when I can drive by and point out to my kids a particular building, it's pretty cool," Rohrs said. "All the people who worked on it can say, 'I built that.' "



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