After bottoming out during the Great Recession, employment in the construction industry is on the rise, having added 814,000 new jobs since February 2010 at a growth rate of 15 percent. With additional growth on the horizon, the industry is now in a frantic search for workers. One ready source of labor from which they are forbidden to draw, however, is from legal immigrants.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the construction industry posted the second highest job gains for any industry in America in January. Yet immigration law bans the construction industry from hiring foreign worker for any year-round position, even if a U.S. worker is unavailable for the position. Two guest worker programs, known as H-2A and H-2B, do exist, but they only allow workers to fill temporary, seasonal jobs.
The industry still employs 1.6 million fewer people than before the recession, but the labor market has changed considerably over that time. The recession for construction extended almost a year longer than other sectors of the economy, and that pushed many construction workers into other sectors of the economy or to other countries. Almost a million undocumented workers left the United States.
It’s time to end the ban on year-round skilled construction workers. In a survey of members of the Associated General Contractors, the industry’s largest association, 87 percent of construction employers reported difficulties in finding workers. “We have had to decline to bid on jobs a few times, because of a shortage of workers,” said Dan Krische, an owner of a construction company in Colorado.
Americans should care about this labor shortage because construction costs are a major component of housing prices and the cost of living. In the Houston area, for example, a National Association of Home Builders survey in 2014 found that almost half of all building companies face labor shortages in the skilled trades. This helps explain why construction costs there rose almost 12 percent since 2011.
The labor problems for the construction industry rarely make national news, but they are felt acutely at the local level, which is why in the last two months alone many local outlets have been covering the issue. “Our industry doesn’t have a labor shortage, it has a shortage of skilled craftsman. These are the people who do the complicated work required to build highways and office buildings,” says the Alabama Construction Recruitment Institute.
The ban on year-round workers for construction—and other industries as well—needs to go. Maintaining the status quo is bad politics and worse economics.