The 50 States of Construction: Vermont's small size means big opportunities for contractors
Editor's note: This article is part of Construction Dive's 50 States of Construction series, in which we talk with industry leaders across the U.S. about the business conditions in their market.
Vermont may be small, but construction companies in the state are doing big work, according to Jay Fayette, executive vice president and chief operating officer of South Burlington, VT–based PC Construction. Founded nearly 60 years ago, the company specializes in a range of categories, from commercial mixed-use developments to large higher-education projects.
Despite facing harsh winters that necessitate a short construction timeline, the state’s building industry is home to loyal workers who want to see "Vermont build Vermont," Fayette said. And while contractors in Vermont may have to worry less than those in other areas about workers leaving the state for busy markets beyond its borders, they still must seek out the next generation of skilled workers.
Construction Dive spoke with Fayette about Vermont’s strong construction market, how the state is handling the labor shortage and other challenges facing companies building in the state.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
What are some of the most active areas in Vermont? What kinds of projects are underway there?
FAYETTE: The big work is happening in Burlington. The University of Vermont (UVM) has some upcoming projects that are exciting, including an $80 million STEM project that we're at the midpoint of. We're also about to get underway with the $175 million, mixed-use Burlington City Place development in the heart of downtown.
On the near horizon, there will be multiple, small private-developer projects and fairly active private development work in the hospitality and residential categories. Vermont has a large agricultural lab that is coming up to bid soon. There are pockets of work across the state, but Chittenden County [which includes Burlington] is by and large where things are happening.
What sectors are seeing the greatest demand, and what’s driving that demand?
FAYETTE: Academic is No. 1, between Champlain College, Bennington College and the University of Vermont. We've had a lot of healthcare activity going on. And we also do a lot of recurring advanced technology work for GlobalFoundries in Chittenden County.
Demand is still fairly mixed, and we also do a lot of resort and residential work. We stay active in multiple verticals, including hospitality, advanced technology, resort, academic, college and state work. We've been very busy in Vermont since the upturn of the economy. For a tiny little state, it's been producing a good amount of construction.
Vermont is known for its sustainability focus. What practices have helped lead to that reputation?
FAYETTE: There is a pretty good array of hydroelectric in Vermont, and we do a good amount of hydro work for Green Mountain Power. There has been a strong push into solar, so a number of solar farms have developed across the state. To a lesser extent, there has been wind, but that's not without trying. You've got to give everybody an 'A' for trying [in wind]. There has been more opposition to seeing large wind turbines going up on mountainsides and hillsides, however.
Vermont has some of the oldest construction workers in the country. How has a growing payroll of workers approaching retirement age impacted your labor?
FAYETTE: The labor question affects every contractor in the country. In the Northeast, we're active in Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Massachusetts and Vermont. We're always seeing folks retiring and moving on to the next stage of their life. But because we're headquartered in Vermont, the workforce component hasn't impacted us as much here as it has in the other states we operate in. That aging workforce — we're sort of used to it. Folks retiring and new folks coming in has been the normal cycle of life in our company.
Why do you think the labor shortage is more pronounced in the other states in which you operate?
FAYETTE: With Vermont being very small, folks working in construction stay put. They want to stay here and they want to work here. Portland, ME, has an abundance of workers, but with so much action in Boston and not so much happening in Portland, more workers are going to move to Boston to stay busy. Boston will draw workers more easily out of Portland than out of Burlington. Albany will draw workers more easily out of northern New York than out of Rutland, VT. We've just not seen that kind of exodus of work. However, in our neighboring states where we work, we've opened regional offices to try to counteract the demands on the workforce there.
What methods are you using to bring more people into your worker pipeline?
FAYETTE: We have our own in-house recruiting, so we're constantly recruiting the best talent we can find in multiple disciplines. We're also always trying to improve and create a competitive employment package, from base salary through bonus, healthcare, etc. You're always looking at your offerings and you're tweaking them, a lot of times, based on competition. The other big differentiator for us is that we're 100% employee-owned. We do pretty well, but that's not to say we don't face stiff competition.
What goes into those recruiting efforts?
FAYETTE: We will make sure we're at a lot of job fairs [in and outside of Vermont] and do on-site recruitment at local colleges and universities in the region. We have an internship program for college juniors and seniors. We feel that's the best opportunity to have an extended interview for anyone. We typically bring in 20 interns each summer and then we have 20 new candidates or more to make job offers to. We also offer scholarships to six universities in the Northeast [for students studying the construction trades]. We try to make sure we're a presence on campus even when we're not there physically, and the scholarship has been a good vehicle for that.
What are some of the other challenges facing contractors in Vermont?
FAYETTE: The one element that's always with us is the weather. You've got a solid six, maybe eight, months of construction weather, but you're going to get whacked with a pretty brutal winter. As builders, we're always trying to anticipate and coach owners on the most advantageous times to start work. We don't like to start a job in October. Ideally, we would be starting jobs in March or April. You're always working with that kind of calendar in the Northeast. Winter work is more expensive because you're paying for temporary heat and enclosure. Plus, folks are not as productive working in 20 F weather as they are in 75 F weather.
What sets Vermont's construction industry apart from other states?
FAYETTE: For as small as we are, we do some pretty impressive things. Vermont prides itself on Vermont workers building Vermont. You don't see the magnitude of the projects in New York, Philadelphia or Boston, but for the state of Vermont, we think what sets us apart is our small size and the talent and quality of the construction workers.
Follow Mary Tyler March on Twitter