Some people talk about home building's labor shortages--likely to be a chronic and ever-more menacing source of risk to both construction schedules and budgets for the foreseeable future--as though it's all about training "our" high school and college kids into the trades.

Others see the source of labor capacity stress as tied directly to the nation's longstanding struggle with immigration. Particularly, undocumented workers who cross the borders from Mexico into Texas and California.

Who's right?

Perhaps more meaningfully, is either viewpoint wrong?

Without question, just as other industry and business communities--transport and food service, to name a couple that I'm aware of--face identical challenges around attracting next waves of talent, skills, management, and leadership into the thinning, aging, and expensive ranks of current human resource, building must market itself as a business culture with exciting career paths.

The marketing and public relations challenges particular to housing's trade skill sets are well known:

  • It's physically hard work, often in inhospitable climates and terrains
  • Other jobs in other careers pay better
  • It's repetitive and sometimes tedious work
  • It can be insecure and unreliable work, depending on the economic cycles

Is all of this true in every case? Anyone who's made a good career in one of the building trades and is in his or her 50s or 60s now might argue that none of those factors ever stood in the way of people wanting to go into the building trades in the past. What's more, as technology, materials science, automation, and building information modeling become more widely deployed on job sites, the marketing and p.r. pitch to youngsters considering a livelihood can get pretty positive.

Here's a few thoughts on the existing and emerging upside appeal of going into the trades:

  • First, some young men and women will gravitate to the building trades because of their nature, and exposed to the current and new-initiative programs to train them, will carry on in the footsteps of those who've practiced the trades for generations before them.
  • From sensors to super materials, both the building envelope and a home's software interfaces represent challenging engineering, technology, and design discipline and practice
  • Automation and robotics will play an increasingly significant role performing tedious, repetitive, and difficult tasks
  • Joining materials, and the skills associated with those tasks, are evolving into integrating systems, each with multiple materials, and plug-and-play function
  • Collaboration and "soft skills" will play an ever more important part on job sites
  • Hybrid site-built and off-site fabricated construction models will involve new logistics skill-sets
  • Finally, and perhaps most important, "the why." It's people's homes; it's new neighborhoods; it's the communities who'll keep America resilient

Now, let's get back to the other, controversial matter. Immigration.

This is a tough issue for BUILDER, because by its nature, BUILDER stands for both the management or capital side of the home building community and its labor. It's probably a fact that if management and capital fail to secure more clear and predictable access to labor, including documented and undocumented immigrant labor, it will subdue and suppress the ability to pencil new homes and communities at price levels the home buyer markets will bear.

We also believe that access to as much data and information on the delicate balances between impacts on wages, access to jobs, and job security for those who are trained practitioners in the trades needs to be a priority in this highly polarized conversation.

Smarter people than we are will challenge themselves with trying to strike a balance here. Meanwhile, when you hear anybody speak the words "construction labor shortages," it's important to note that you're hearing two profoundly different and separate things.