Concrete slab pouring

One of my companions at dinner last week is a senior-level executive with a home building company whose operating footprint encompasses neighborhoods in the U.S. Southeast, Florida included.

The mother of two young-adult sons, she flushed with pride as she of how one of them was headed into home building. He'd spent Spring and a good part of the summer working on crews pouring slabs for new home sites in one of Florida's more hyperactive markets.

And there's the rub.

"He's well-educated enough and smart enough that he's going into more of the management side," his mother told me. "When it comes down to it, even though he loves the notion of seeing the home go up, system by system, he flat out can't stand the work, pouring slabs in the 100 degree heat. He just doesn't want to do that kind of work. He'd rather valet cars for tips to pay his bills than do that."

Fortunately, for him, home building's vacuums of talent throughout its ranks mean there are management-track positions that can leverage his experience, brief as it may have been, as a laborer and train him for a job site supervisory role.

But the issue, and it's one we see in virtually every part of an economy that's lurching forward only very awkwardly as it balances physical labor with knowledge economy work, and tries to attach values to both.

Fact is, that for the money, we see time and time again that there are young people--our sons, daughters, friends' children, and people we hear about--who just don't like and don't want to do the "pouring slabs in the 100 degree heat" kind of jobs that there are to do in home building.

I've heard it argued that we don't have young men and women choosing to go into our building trades because they can get jobs in the financial and tech world that are much better paying. Well, that may be true for some of them, but there are others--a good percentage of others, who are definitely not cut out for jobs in finance and or tech jobs.

So, the question is not about why eight or nine out of 10 young adults wouldn't choose to go into one of the building trades. The question is why two or three of them would rather "valet cars for tips," or deliver restaurant food to homes on their bicycles, or wait tables, than go into one of the building trades.

We know the "labor shortage" issue is a relative term. It has factored into start-to-completion cycles, and it's beginning to factor into direct costs for labor.

We assume that current capacity bottlenecks and constraints project to a woeful mess when a home building pushes toward its reversion-to-norm level of 1.3 to 1.5 million starts across single-family, multi-family and manufactured housing.

Immigration reform--particularly in some markets like Texas, Arizona, California, and maybe Denver--is a material issue to consider in the labor capacity constraint equation.

As headline-grabbing as the delta of 570,000 "fewer Mexican-born construction workers in the U.S." may be, and as anecdotally real that loss may be on some specific job sites, I believe this line of thinking masks the biggest challenge for both home builder "general contractors" and their respective trade base of crews.

Mexican-born construction workers in the U.S., per the Commerce Department

It's the challenge of designing and engineering and constructing homes that can meet market needs and pricing tolerances.

Look at it this way. It's about value.

The trades know more than builders how much what they do is worth on a per-installation basis. Complexity in pricing happens whether schedules and scale come into the mix.

Still, what trades can charge (and what they can pay laborers on an hourly basis), and what home builders can pay as a percentage of their expenses on each home are both numbers that are fungible, and eminently improve-able, based on the quality of trust, communication, effectiveness, and efficiency of their respective operations.

So, the headline "570,000 Mexican-born construction workers are gone and not coming back" may or may not be actually material to the industry's ability to come back up to a normalized pace of housing starts without labor mayhem and paralysis.

We shouldn't look back at 2007 and say that any part of that equation was correct. We had excesses and deficiencies at every turn, so claiming that that's the appropriate amount or measure of any resource is a miscalculation.

The point here is two-fold. One is that the deficit of a real talent stream into the skilled trade areas pre-dated the exodus of Mexican or other foreign-born workers on our job sites. That needs to be addressed, and it needs to be addressed as a multi-year investment on all stakeholders' part in apprenticeship, communications, and training programs that seed, nourish, grow, and place new workers in these invaluable roles in home building. Hourly pay and per-unit cost are at odds here, and we have to do a better job at assigning fair and workable values to both.

No doubt, immigrants represent an economic boon for the U.S. on a number of levels. We just have to get past fear and isolationist reflexes to see how that works.

Secondly, we have to understand how the psyche around work is fundamentally changing. A kid of Western European heritage and American middle-class upbringing may find that "pouring slabs in 100-degree heat" is harder and less-rewarding a livelihood than he or she wants.

So, is finding a documented worker who happens to have been born in another country, who also is willing and constitutionally able to thrive doing exactly that, "pouring slabs in the 100-degree heat" preventing "one of our own" from being on that payroll?

You tell me.