City Councilmember Bobby Henon sponsored a resolution last year calling for 800 more inspectors in Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections, a “ridiculous” figure by his own admission.
The number was meant solely to be eye-catching, he said.
“My calling out for new hires is to make sure they have a fully functional, safe department,” especially “in this incredible construction boom that we have here,” Henon said. “We really have an opportunity to have new inspectors, new hires grow as construction continues.”
Ralph DiPietro, deputy commissioner at L&I, said the department is “in record permit territory” and has "never seen anything like this.” In 2019, the department issued 62,635 permits, compared with 46,859 in 2015.
With the construction boom has come a growing number of construction accidents, including building collapses and property damage, which have led the department to strengthen inspection protocols and permit requirements. Inspectors are tasked with making sure buildings are constructed or renovated according to international and local construction codes, and are safe for future occupants and the public.
But ensuring a steady supply of inspectors is easier said than done. L&I has had a persistent problem filling the positions allotted in its budget — $42 million this fiscal year. Of the 158 budgeted inspector positions for building and code enforcement, 30 spots remain open.
“We just need to find innovative ways to fill those positions,” said David Perri, L&I commissioner.
For years, cities have had trouble both recruiting and retaining inspectors, and the problem is only growing as inspectors age, fewer people enter the profession, building codes become more complex, and inspectors require more certifications, according to people in the building industry.
Training typically takes 18 months, during which L&I teaches building codes and helps prepare recruits to pass the general building inspector test to become certified inspectors. Trainees also are taught the rules around entering properties and safety for working alone. Inspectors need separate certifications for specialties such as electrical and plumbing inspections.
A class of eight construction inspectors starts next month in Philadelphia. Out of L&I’s most recent class of 21 inspector trainees, just 11 ultimately became building inspectors. The department generally loses some recruits during training, but to lose so many was unusual.
About 10% of L&I’s inspectors leave each year. Engineering firms and municipalities poach some; others retire or leave the profession.
Inspector jobs are civil-service positions, which means L&I doesn’t have control over when it recruits classes. Applicants must apply through a central human resources department, which periodically creates a list of qualified candidates from which L&I can choose.
The city is in early talks with Community College of Philadelphia to train prospective inspectors in code enforcement while in school, which could save the city time and money. The Philadelphia Fire Department has a similar program at the college in which students take courses in fire prevention and suppression and building construction to earn an associate’s degree in fire science. Perri estimated that L&I would hire 25 students per year. A spokesperson for the college declined to discuss the fledgling proposal.
“The way building inspection works now, we’re kind of the DROP program for the building trades,” Perri said, referring to the Deferred Retirement Option Plan for city employees. “Folks work in the building trades and then they retire and come working for the city. That’s gotta end. ... We need to draw from a younger demographic. We need to draw from city residents.”
Henon, a longtime union official, said L&I would benefit from a mix of seasoned workers in the building trades and young recruits.
Douglas Meshaw, a codes consultant for the Pennsylvania Builders Association, said the association works with trade schools and has been trying to get them to develop courses to train inspectors, but “there’s not enough interest for them to make the expenditures” to establish programs.
“We’ve tried a lot of stuff,” he said. “The problem is the younger generations don’t want to work with their hands.”
29,000 active permits
Inspectors visit construction or renovation sites large and small to make sure builders are following building codes, and they investigate reports of unsafe buildings. L&I has about 29,000 active permits, officials said. A third are for more minor work such as sprinkler relocation. The remaining two-thirds are active building permits at roughly 14,000 addresses. One project may have six or seven permits, and each could require multiple inspections.
Inspector shortages generally aren’t delaying construction jobs throughout the state, Meshaw said, but that day could be coming.
“It doesn’t look very bright right now. It really doesn’t,” he said. “It really is a shame, because there really is a lot of money to be made in the industry.”
Perri projects that L&I could have 200 inspectors in five or so years but said that hiring is only a partial fix.
“You don’t put more people into an inefficient system," he said. "You gotta make the system more efficient.”
L&I is hoping the long-delayed eCLIPSE system that will let contractors apply for permits and schedule inspections online, instead of by phone, will allow workers to focus more time on site visits. The system is to launch March 16.
L&I also plans to open another regional office next month to shrink inspectors’ territories and reduce travel time.
L&I is a hard sell
Large cities experiencing building booms are not the only places that could use more inspectors, said Chris McSween, director of Upper Darby’s Department of Licenses and Inspections. The township of more than 83,000 has three inspectors, but in a perfect world, it would have three more, McSween said. And even then, they’d all stay busy, he said.
As a profession, the inspector field has been a hard sell, said Ryan McCann, assistant director of the department. Most municipalities operate under tight budgets that limit salaries. At the same time, inspectors are expected to be “multi-disciplined” and to understand law, architecture, construction, and customer service, he said. Codes keep getting more complex.
“It’s not the same profession as it used to be, and the pay hasn’t really changed to keep up,” said McCann, a former president of the Pennsylvania Association of Code Officials. So finding qualified candidates can be difficult.
Philadelphia’s L&I recently bumped pay. Salaries for construction inspectors start at $52,000 and top out at $75,000.
April Gigetts, vice president of the union that represents L&I workers, said she is “very alarmed” about L&I’s staffing troubles.
“This has been going on for years,” she said. “I know the department often says they’re going to hire more people.”
At the same time, union representatives said L&I has been slow to act on suggestions that would help inspectors do their jobs, such as allowing them to use parking permits while visiting sites. And L&I plans to take some inspectors from their regular work to do unannounced spot-checks of construction sites as part of the new audits and investigations unit. The department soon plans to fill eight open positions in the unit to add to the two inspectors it has.
Inspectors in Upper Darby don’t perform unannounced inspections. The philosophy is to work with contractors to make sure work is done correctly, “not to be ‘We gotcha’ ” later, McSween said.
Hotels to backyard decks
Major projects in the township, such as the six-story Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites that opened last year, which called for all hands on deck over the course of two years, take priority. But officials said the department has to balance developers’ plans with the smaller projects that matter most to residents, such as additions, renovations, and the construction of sheds and decks.
“To keep people happy,” McCann said. “Because they’re our residents. They have to be kept happy at all costs.”
Work done by contractors in the township is relatively easy and quick to inspect, they said. Generally more time-consuming is a case of “Joe Homeowner” building a deck and needing to be taught how to do it correctly.
Since most people who call the department want to know the status of their permits, McCann said, an online tracking system like the one Philadelphia plans to launch would save inspectors time.
But that still doesn’t fix the inspector shortage across the country. Glenn Holt, a board member and former president of the Pennsylvania Association of Code Officials, said all the municipal officials he’s talked to have the same problem recruiting inspectors.
“I haven’t been able to come up with an answer,” said Holt, the sole commercial building inspector for Marple Township, Delaware County. "Most municipalities haven’t.”