NOTE: This article has been updated to include comments from the NAHB.

When home builders need carpenters, union trained ones will be available in the markets where unions are active, says Douglas J. McCarron, general president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters.

With 250 training centers, an extensive apprenticeship program, and recruiting programs at community colleges and high schools, the union has the infrastructure in place to gear up quickly to provide the next generation of carpenters, McCarron said.

And he’s not worried about lack of candidates -- the organization’s training programs have waiting lists of interested candidates. But he adds: “What’s missing are the quality jobs that we need to support the highly skilled and stable construction workforce of the future.”

Union leaders suggest that home builders are contending there are labor shortages to persuade Congress to allow more low-skilled immigrants into the country -- people who will work for less than union employees. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ population survey reports that the average wage for a union-represented construction worker is $20.60, compared with $13.30 for a non-union worker.

Builders disagree. Ken Gear, a lobbyist for Leading Builders of America, an organization of the largest U.S. home builders, says the labor shortage is real.

“Builders and trades are facing labor shortages in almost every market across the country,” he said. "I think it’s challenging out there right now to stay on schedule and meet cycle times and cycle goals.”

Future Labor Shortages

Long term, the unions, too, expect labor shortages.“With the industry projecting 200,000 openings a year over the next five years, and boomer construction workers retiring, we do need to start building a new generation of people who build things," McCarron says. "Far from a problem, however, I see this as a great opportunity to help our young people and returning veterans move into solid middle class jobs.”

LIUNA, a union that represents construction laborers that make less than the more skilled carpenters, is concerned that laborers are less likely to enter or return to the industry because so many found other jobs during the downturn.

“It’s harder to get people to come back in,” says Greg Davis, LIUNA’s director of construction employment, noting that laborers can work at McDonald's and make about the same as in construction. “They have got regular hours every day. They are not getting wet, they are not providing their own boots, and some of the equipment. Sometimes that outweighs a construction job that will last three weeks and you don’t know where the next one is coming."

Consequently, LIUNA’s membership dropped during the downturn and hasn’t started to climb. But Davis notes: “We have, over the years, improved our training and expanded the training. Training programs run every day.” During the downturn, LIUNA began more green building techniques and weatherization programs because those areas still require skilled workers.

Teresa Burney is a senior editor for BUILDER.