Hispanic workers account for about one-fifth of the residential construction workforce, according to NAHB estimates. The trade association would like to see that number grow larger to balance future labor shortages that might arise as home building activity and buyer demand swell.
But immigration reform has become a political piñata, with the U.S. House of Representatives in June rejecting a much-debated bill passed by the Senate that combined stronger border protection with an eventual path to citizenship for people in the U.S. illegally. Consequently, builders shouldn’t be counting on a new wave of Hispanic workers on their jobsites any time soon.
Nevertheless, despite the exodus of immigrant labor after the housing and mortgage sectors unraveled, Hispanic workers remain a huge presence in several states. “If we didn’t have Hispanic workers, we wouldn’t be able to do anything,” says Kevin Padgett of KEP Electric in Ohio. “The ones who stayed are mostly bilingual, and we’ve found that they learn English faster than we can learn Spanish.”
But Hispanic workers don’t dominate everywhere. In Jacksonville, Fla., only three of American Electrical’s 74 employees are Hispanic, says president Billy Frick. In that same market, builder A. Sydes Construction finds that about half of its jobsite labor is Hispanic, the rest white and African American. “It’s always been a mix,” says owner Tony Sydes.
In Northern California, Hispanics are “a factor” in Beutler Corp.’s plumbing division. “But we have more Russians and Vietnamese [installing] HVAC,” says president Rick Wylie. He adds that Beutler tries to hire workers who speak English, and at the very least, “you need to have a crew member who can communicate in English.”
As the housing market improves, builders and subs are reporting shortages in certain trades—masons and framers in particular. There are “shortages in almost every market across the country,” says Ken Gear, a lobbyist for Leading Builders of America, representing the largest U.S. builders.
Those shortages aren’t severe yet, but builders wonder if there are enough workers to meet their increasing production needs. NAHB’s chairman Rick Judson is urging lawmakers to approve reforms that would complement the housing industry’s efforts to train more people with a market-based visa system that allows more foreign workers to enter the construction workforce each year.
Not everyone is buying these claims about labor shortages and economic disruption. Frank Libby, president of the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters, thinks that the housing industry is crying wolf about shortages to influence immigrant legislation that would provide builders with a steady stream of cheap labor. “There are no shortages; they just don’t want us,” says Libby about unionized workers.
On the flip side of this debate, Stephen E. Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of America, recently complained that the immigration reform package approved by the Senate would place an “arbitrary cap” on the number of work visas the construction industry would be allowed.
“Imposing severe limitations ... at a time when economists expect construction firms will add 350,000 new jobs this year alone will undermine the sector’s nascent recovery,” wrote Sandherr.
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Chicago, IL.