Northern California construction industry needs more workers after wildfires, remodeling boom, net-zero-energy push

While hospitality and restaurant businesses are casting about for workers as government pandemic restrictions ease, local construction employers have been calling for qualified job candidates for years. And the want for workers is getting more dire for North Bay builders, an official overseeing an $8.1 million construction education center project said at an industry conference Wednesday.

Construction is the second-fastest growing industry for jobs in Sonoma County, with 9% anticipated between 2020 and 2023, according to Sonoma County Economic Development Board figures presented by Catherine Williams, Ph.D., who leads the Santa Rosa Junior College Construction Center project.

“Our construction-related industries are in a pressure cooker of demands,” said Williams at the Business Journal’s Building the North Bay Construction Conference virtual event. She’s part of the college’s behavioral sciences faculty and leader of the project to build a center to train entry level construction workers on the Petaluma campus.

Williams noted that multiple North Bay wildfires from 2015 through last year resulted in the need to replace thousands of homes, in addition to construction of dwellings to accommodate population growth. And with more homeowners spending more time at home in the pandemic, there’s been a surge in remodeling.

And in the years following the adoption of California’s Assembly Bill 32 of 2006, demand for clean energy ratcheted up, with the newest state regulations for solar on new homes and movement toward zero net energy.

Goals of the construction training center, expected to be completed by fall 2023, will be to bring together the college’s existing and planned construction workforce training degree-transfer and certificate programs under one roof, Williams said. The classrooms and outdoor learning areas are envisioned to help students learn not only the “hard skills” of completing tasks in current and up-and-coming trades but also the “soft skills” required on job sites, such as working together on teams and between trades.

“When we look at job postings of employers seeking new employees, we see that, yes, you need skilled labor,” Williams told the conference-goers. “But we also see that you're looking for solid humans. You want people who can show up on time, who can communicate respectfully, and problem-solve collaboratively.”

A fundraiser for center, titled “Building Futures,” is set for June 3.

Cutting red tape for more ‘granny units’

Accessory dwelling units, commonly called “granny units,” are enjoying a surge in popularity in California as state and local governments have cut red tape and fees to encourage homeowners to get them built, according to conference speaker Scott Johnson.

“ADUs were prohibitive because the regulations and fees were too high,” he said. Johnson is an adviser with the Napa Sonoma ADU Center and owner of tiny-dwelling consultancy Pocket Housing.

The first wave of ADU permit streamlining legislation came out of Sacramento in 2017, and the second round came last year. From just the first round, the number of ADU construction permits that were pulled in Napa and Sonoma counties from 2015 through 2019 jumped 252%, from 85 permits to 299, Johnson noted, citing California Department of Housing & Community Development data.

“It's largely a result of the rule changes, but also because there's huge demand for housing, in particular small housing,” Johnson said. “One- and two-bedroom units are really in demand.”

In Santa Rosa alone since 2015, 414 permit applications have been submitted for ADUs, including conversions of garages spaces, according to city data as of May 12. That total includes 93 permits for ADUs in the city areas burned by the 2017 fires, when 26 existing ADUs were destroyed along with over 3,000 single- and multifamily units.

And rising housing rents, new California laws and emerging ADU financing tools are expected to further heighten demand for ADUs, Johnson said.

“The complexity of rules makes it hard for homeowners to go to a designer and build one,” Johnson said. He noted jurisdictional nuances such as a ban on ADUs for certain parcels in Sonoma County’s Z combining district in agricultural areas and generally in Napa County’s agricultural preserve areas.

That’s where the Napa Sonoma ADU Center seeks to help. It was created last year with funding from Napa Valley Community Foundation and Community Foundation of Sonoma County. The goal is to give homeowners a clearer idea up front of the costs and the building process, including design, financing, permitting, construction and rental. The organization also is working with the 16 jurisdictions in the two counties to make their public-facing permitting agency counters and websites more helpful.

Since formally launching the center in September, it has completed 80 detailed reports for homeowners with specific information on the parcel numbers, zoning, permitting and construction process for their desired ADUs.

With fees waived on the government end, the center wants to help homeowners with the design costs of the unit. This month, the group will be calling on architects and engineers to submit standard designs that can be tweaked for a given site at lower cost than drafting plans from scratch. This Standard Plans Program is anticipated to launch for the public this summer, Johnson said.

Legal conundrums on the horizon

Coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths in California continue to fall rapidly since the spike at the beginning of this year. And 46% of California residents were fully vaccinated as of Tuesday, according to state figures.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said recently that many government restrictions on business activity likely will lift by June 15, and state workplace regulators are crafting rules set to take effect in August on indoor social distancing and mask usage for vaccinated and unvaccinated workers.

In this context, employers have to be aware what federal and state law has to say about requirements that workers be vaccinated, according to conference speaker Dan McLennon, a partner in Atlanta-based construction law firm Smith Currie & Hancock and a former president of Marin Builders Association.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said such mandates for workplaces employing five or more are OK as long as the rules also comply with the Civil Rights Act provisions for strongly held religious beliefs and with Americans With Disabilities Act protections for those who may be advised not to get the shot, he said.

And California employers that require vaccination to return to work can discipline employees who shun the shots only because they don’t trust them, McLennon said.

“The better practice is to provide incentives such as gifts and time off to deal with the side effects,” he said.

The EEOC as of Wednesday had not responded to an inquiry from a group of employers in mid-April about how to handle such incentives.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before the Business Journal, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. He has a degree from Walla Walla University. Reach him at or 707-521-4256.

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