Building the future - or the buildings where it will play out - is an exciting prospect. But an essential tool for a career in the construction trades these days is flexibility.

The recession hit construction harder than almost any other sector in the state or the country, according to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). Construction lost 4,300 in Minnesota in the past year, more than any of the state's 11 major industrial sectors, according to January unemployment numbers released in March.

That represents a 6.9 percent loss in construction jobs in the state, which has about 69,000 positions in trades such as carpenters, cement masons, crane operators, electricians, painters, plumbers, roofers and general construction workers.

Still, construction did gain 200 jobs in January. Steve Hine, director of DEED's Labor Market Information office, cautioned against reading anything into a one-month increase, which may be an isolated blip, DEED spokesman Monte Hanson said. The industry probably will have to wait until April or May to see whether a recover is taking place.

Mortenson Construction, the state's largest construction company, has not been hiring field craftworkers for several years, said Kendall Griffith, vice president of operations for the family-owned, Minneapolis-based organization.

The company, however, continues hiring entry-level project managers, often referred to as field engineers though they usually work in the office, Griffith said. Mortenson is recruiting candidates usually, typically those with four-year engineering degrees, from several college campuses.

In the field or the office, however, people working in construction and those seeking trades jobs need to be ready to go where the work is, Griffith said.

"Flexibility is at an all-time high premium," Griffith said. "The need at one point in time might be in Minneapolis working on the Twins' ballpark. We might then need some of those same people to travel outstate to a wind energy project. Flexibility and the ability to be mobile are important in our industry and have increased as work has gotten harder to come by."

As construction has changed in the last 10 to 15 years, employers have begun looking for employees who place a high value on safety, Griffith said. They're also looking for a more diverse workforce, which has gotten more difficult as the economy has produced fewer jobs. They're also looking for people, both in the office and in the field, with a broader view of what they and the company trying to accomplish for the client to help employers maintain a competitive edge, Griffith said.

"I need to find those people our customers will want to work with that will also be project managers," Griffith said. "The best craftworkers for the future need to show a potential employer you're thinking about more than the nail you're hammering on." Long term, Hanson said, the construction industry will see some growth. The state had 80,000 construction trades workers in 2009, a total projected to rise to 90,000 by 2019, or 13 percent.

In addition, the projections show that companies will need to hire nearly 14,000 more replacement workers for those who quit or retire in that same period, Hanson said. That could change, however, because of the drop to 69,000 trades job this year.

- Todd Nelson
Freelance writer from Woodbury, Minn.