updated 7/28/2006 1:04:56 PM ET 2006-07-28T17:04:56

Amid a desperate shortage of labor to rebuild the Gulf Coast following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, a business group launched an effort Friday to recruit and train up to 20,000 new construction workers for the region.

The Business Roundtable, a Washington-based association of 160 chief executives of major companies, said it plans to recruit 2,500 workers through the end of 2006, 15,000 in 2007 and 2008, followed by another 2,500 in 2009.

The region already faced a shortage of construction and maintenance workers before the storms. Now, various studies have put the post-storm shortage at up to 150,000 workers.

About 300 trainees already are in the program, and extensive recruiting is starting in Baton Rouge, La., and Jackson, Miss. — two areas that took in large numbers of storm refugees — and will be expanded to other cities. Participants take a four-week course, which primarily covers basic safety, targeted at filling entry-level positions in various skilled construction and maintenance trades.

Companies participating in the Business Roundtable are committing $5 million to launch the program, which also will receive funds from the federal Labor Department and national emergency grants. The program is being coordinated with trade schools, community colleges, storm recovery agencies, unions and trade organizations.

‘Word of mouth’ hirings
DuPont Co. Chief Executive Officer Chad Holliday Jr., whose company has two plants in Mississippi, said the program could be a "role model example" of public-private partnerships because, instead of being created from scratch, it uses already-available resources.

"We're using the infrastructure that is there," said Holliday, co-chairman of the project. "We think it'll travel well by word of mouth. We get 1,000 in there and they'll tell their buddies."

Mike Matlock, site maintenance leader for Dow Chemical Co.'s four Louisiana facilities and a company representative on the project, said the need for construction and maintenance workers extends far beyond rebuilding hurricane-damaged buildings and infrastructure.

The current pinch on the number of workers can affect expansions and operations at chemical plants and refineries, for example, he said. A tight labor force delays projects, pushes up costs and, in some cases, can drive projects to areas where more workers are available, he said.

‘There’s a career path’
One challenge is convincing young workers — and their parents — to pursue construction opportunities, he said.

"The reality is that these jobs have changed in many ways and people have begun to see that you can make good money, start your own company or move up in the management of a major company," Matlock said. "There's a career path."

Holliday said the eventual goal is to increase the ranks of skilled craftsmen on a long-term basis, even after hurricane reconstruction is completed.

"The shortage is a lot larger than 20,000," he said. "Because our country is going to grow, the need will continue to grow."

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