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Panel: Construction companies challenged to find workers

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Christopher Johnson, founder of Hollister Construction; Jerry Killian, chief financial officer at Ferreira Construction; and Jim Merrill, managing director of Star America Capital Advisors, take part in a Construction industry update sponsored by accounting and tax firm Sax.
Christopher Johnson, founder of Hollister Construction; Jerry Killian, chief financial officer at Ferreira Construction; and Jim Merrill, managing director of Star America Capital Advisors, take part in a Construction industry update sponsored by accounting and tax firm Sax. - ()

Construction in New Jersey is booming to the degree that there is a shortage of qualified labor to perform the volume of jobs, according to three panelists who took part in an industry panel Wednesday in Whippany.

The panel was one in a series sponsored by Clifton-based accounting firm Sax LLP.

Christopher Johnson, chief executive officer and founder of Hollister Construction, has managed building projects totaling more than 10 million square feet. Hollister is currently doing about $300 million in business a year between New Jersey and New York.

“On labor shortages, we are not interviewing people who are not working,” Johnson said. “I do not think a recession would be bad for our business because people would become available.”

Construction companies are having to hire employees from competing firms because the current economy is strong enough to keep the unemployment rate low, Johnson said.  

Jim Merrill, managing director at Star America Capital Advisors, works on mergers and acquisitions in the construction industry and invests in public-private partnerships on projects with local and international contractors. 

“Over the last 10 years, we have seen great growth in the [public-private partnership] space,” Merrill said. “… You are seeing a trend of new public companies that are looking to grow. We do not see a slowdown in the volume of work that contractors are doing around the country, not just in New Jersey.”

Jerry Killian, chief financial officer at Ferreira Construction, said Ferreira was traditionally a heavy highway contractor. About seven years ago it transitioned 70 percent of its business to working for utility companies. Ferreira is currently working with PSE&G to continue repairing equipment infrastructure that was damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Asked about bidding on transportation projects, Killian said Ferreira is not currently bidding on many Department of Transportation jobs because there is too much competition and “we cannot make money on those jobs.”

On how the new federal tax law is impacting the economy, Merrill said he has heard owners of private companies say they think they are worth more because they are paying less money in corporate taxes. But he has not seen much in terms of their reinvesting this money.

Killian is waiting on President Donald Trump’s infrastructure plan, especially as it relates to the Gateway project to add tunnels between New Jersey and New York.

“I have not seen it,” Killian said. “We need a new tunnel connecting New Jersey with New York. … It looks like we are 10 years away from completion of this project.”

On a question of hiring union versus non-union employees, Killian said he prefers union.

“I think the unions have been working very hard over the last few years to fill their pipelines,” Killian said.

Conversely, he shared a story of a company placing an advertisement in a newspaper seeking construction workers. Out of 20 applicants, 18 failed drug tests and one of the remaining two failed to come to work, he said.

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David Hutter

David Hutter


David Hutter grew up in Darien, Conn., and covers higher education, transportation and manufacturing for NJBIZ. He can be reached at dhutter@njbiz.com.

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