By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN
The Associated Press
Wednesday, September 13, 2006; 12:51 PM
BILOXI, Miss. -- A push to train thousands of new construction workers on the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast found an unlikely pupil in Sandra Ramsay, a self-employed massage therapist and hair stylist.
Like many of her neighbors, Ramsay couldn't find a contractor to repair her storm-damaged home after Hurricane Katrina. So the 55-year-old took matters into her own hands and enrolled in a monthlong, government-sponsored crash course in construction.
Not only did she learn how to repair her Long Beach, Miss., trailer home, she's also padding her regular income by installing drywall for other homeowners.
"I like being out there, helping people rebuild," she said. "And I'm making money on top of it."
With tens of thousands of homes still in ruins a year after Katrina, the construction trade here needs many more newcomers like Ramsay. A shortage of workers _ compounded by an acute shortage of places to house them _ is making it impossible for contractors to meet the overwhelming demand for builders, plumbers, electricians and other skilled laborers.
The shortage also has left many Katrina victims vulnerable to price gouging and scams by unscrupulous contractors.
The problems promise to grow worse in the coming months, as thousands of homeowners in Mississippi and Louisiana are set to receive hundreds of millions in government grants to pay for rebuilding.
"People realize the next struggle they're going to face is to find a contractor," said Andy Kopplin, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. "They may not recognize how difficult it's going to be, but they're cognizant of it."
George and Janet Meaut are painfully aware of the shortage. They used to be the envy of their Biloxi neighbors, the first on the block to start rebuilding after Katrina's flood waters hit. That was before the couple lined up contractors to handle the repairs.
Two of the contractors they hired skipped town _ with their money _ before finishing the job. Unable to find affordable replacements, the couple worries they'll be the last of their neighbors to move out of a government-issued trailer and back into their home.
"All the reliable ones are taken. They're booked up," said George Meaut, 52. "We're doing a lot of this ourselves because we can't find a contractor."
The Meauts are installing their own kitchen cabinets and tiling their bathroom and kitchen floors, but they don't have enough money left for other jobs. They couldn't afford a plumber, for instance, even if they could find one.
"We should have been back in our home by now," Janet Meaut said.
The public and private sectors are teaming up to curb the labor shortage.
The U.S. Department of Labor set aside $10 million in grants for several community colleges in Mississippi and Louisiana to offer free classes in basic construction skills. The money already has paid for around 250 students, including Ramsay, to enroll in a four-week class at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.
The Business Roundtable, a Washington-based association of chief executives from around 160 companies, has committed $5 million to help recruit and train up to 20,000 new construction workers by the end of 2009. Louisiana's Legislature also earmarked $15 million for the training.
Even if that initiative meets its goal, thousands more workers are needed to fill the shortage. In the New Orleans region alone, the projected demand for workers ranges from 30,000 to 100,000, according to Jim Henderson, senior vice president of work force development for the Louisiana Community and Technical College System.
Henderson said Louisiana's "extremely low" unemployment rate _ 2.9 percent in July _ means the construction industry faces stiff competition for filling entry-level jobs that typically pay up to $16 an hour.
A lack of affordable housing for workers is another serious barrier, he added. "How do you solve the housing problem without a work force?" Henderson asked. "It's a Catch-22."
The worker shortage has been tempered by the estimated 100,000 Hispanic workers who moved to the Gulf Coast region after last year's storm. One-quarter of the workers in New Orleans after Katrina are undocumented Latinos, according to a recent study by researchers from Tulane University and the University of California at Berkeley.
The study also notes the federal government has waived certain immigration laws that make it easier for employers to hire undocumented workers, but some have balked at hiring them.
Alan Ramsay, a Mississippi contractor who specializes in renovating historic homes, sees more risk than reward in using undocumented workers _ for liability reasons.
"Without papers, I can't put them on payroll," he said, recalling how an undocumented day laborer he hired suffered an epileptic seizure and fell face first into a slab of wet cement.
"While it all turned out OK, it reminded me how bad things can go wrong," said Ramsay, no relation to Sandra.
Since June, Ramsay's crew of up to six workers has been repairing a century-old, beachfront cottage in Pass Christian that Katrina's storm surge knocked off its foundation. He already has lined up a year's worth of jobs, but the pace of the work is slower than he hoped.
"I could use two more guys tomorrow," Ramsay said.
A few miles east of where Ramsay's crew is working, Stanley Hoda, 36, is leading a group of workers framing a beachfront home. Katrina permitted Hoda to form his own company.
"I was really blessed by Katrina," said Hoda, who said he's more than doubled his income. "I know it devastated a lot of people, but it helped me."
His crew of four workers includes Pierre Hawk, 24-year-old newcomer to the construction trade, who lives in a rental in D'Iberville, Miss. He made $8.50 an hour managing a fast food restaurant before the storm. Now the father of two makes $11 an hour.
"More money. That's what it's all about," Hawk said. "It's harder work, but you've got to do what it takes to keep the bread on the table."