Why finding construction workers in the United States is so difficult

Reddit User ctrlf/sauce asked WikiTribune to report on the shortage of construction workers that is slowing down the recovery of a Californian region after a 2017 wildfire.

San Franciscans might take a trip to Santa Rosa to their north to escape tech buzz and traffic, but the one thing that follows them is an acute housing shortage.

The need has reached critical levels after the Tubbs Fire of 2017, the most destructive fire in Californian history, destroyed 5,230 homes. Displaced residents, many coming from neighborhoods such as Fountaingrove with average salaries of $84,938 (€73,135), have resorted to nearly every form of shelter as their charred cul-de-sacs are rebuilt. But many of them will be waiting for some time.

“You see about half of the approved projects actually in the rebuilding phase,” says Mark Mitchell, a contractor who has taken on the first rebuild after a number of northern California wildfires. “By the time you get through the permitting process and planning, it can take 10 months to rebuild a bigger home.”

There are several reasons why building a single family home can take years, but the one reason Mitchell struggles to grasp is the constant shortage of labor.

Contractors in Santa Rosa who spoke with WikiTribune said they’ll pay $22 (€19) an hour for entry-level jobs, roughly three times the national minimum wage, and don’t require a high school diploma. Yet about 40 percent of construction vacancies in California remain unfilled for nearly six weeks, which has contributed to an already slow rebuilding process, according to the analyst group BuildZoom.

The shortage of labor is an issue that stretches far beyond fire-stricken Santa Rosa. In 2016, the National Association of Home Builders estimated that 200,000 construction jobs were unfilled in 2016 – an 81 percent increase over two years (Fortune). The problem has improved, but remains, according to contractors who spoke to WikiTribune.

The social stigma

In a climate where creating blue-collar work wins presidential campaigns, these relatively high-paying jobs should be competitive (NPR). But contractors struggle to find able-bodied young adults who are interested in the trades.

“I have kids coming to worksites in flip-flops” – Mark Mitchell

“We’re constantly hiring, but it’s very difficult to find young people who are motivated in the trades,” says Mitchell, from his Lakeport office.

The median age of construction workers in the United States is 41 years, according to the National Association of Home Builders. This is in a country which has a youth unemployment (under 24) rate of 8.6 percent. Mitchell says new recruits commonly quit after their first day.

“Over the last thirty years, our society has told our youth that being a plumber, electrician and carpenter is a no-end job … Now, I have kids coming to worksites in flip flops.”

Industry groups around the country are thinking of ways to market the job. In Northern California, local contractors crafted their own pro-trades message by presenting construction as a “cool” and even “patriotic” line of work, according to the North Bay Business Journal.

The most effective way to combat the social stigma behind the trades may be a simple focus on the paycheck for working with your hands.

Most young Americans assume the trades pay less than they really do, according to a survey from the National Association of Home Builders. The study found that 18 to 25-year-olds believe trade jobs average around $55,000 a year, when in reality, many trade jobs offer salaries well over $75,000 a year (Salary.com).

The average starting salary of university undergraduates was found to be at a comparable rate of $50,390, according to the law firm Korn Ferry. However this came with $28,288 in debt (LendEDU).

Lack of Training

Not every unemployed youth needs to be convinced that the trades are a viable career path. Millennials, who grew up in the 1990s and 2000s, confuse Mitchell, but he says there are plenty of under 25s who want to work, they just don’t know how.

“We have kids ready to come in and work their butts off. But it takes a while to get to that point … A lot of them don’t know how to use a shovel,” he says.

“Not all students are college-bound” – Andrew Leonard

The stark difference between trade jobs and qualified candidates in the U.S. is commonly referred to as the “skills gap,” and it exists for skilled positions as well as unskilled entry-level spots.

The LIME Foundation is a non-profit that focuses on the latter, by training at-risk youth the basics of a construction job.

“There is a big focus on going to college. But as of late, there’s recognition that not all students are college-bound, and the ones who are not college-bound need options,” says Andrew Leonard, vice president of programs at the foundation.

Leticia Hanke, founder of the LIME Foundation and chief executive of ARS Roofing, one of the largest contractors in the Santa Rosa area, says that young unskilled laborers can ascend to managerial jobs: the trick is getting their foot in the door.

Construction manager jobs, which do not need specialized training, average $101,000 a year in salary in the U.S.(Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Not Recession-proof

What’s puzzled some economists is that much of this workforce has not returned to construction sites now that the housing market has heated up again. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) found that there were roughly 1.2 million fewer workers in the field in 2016 compared to the heyday of 2006, despite similar levels of demand.

The difference between 2005 and 2016 can be explained by 2008, the year of the Great Recession – the number one reason for the labor shortage, according to Paul Emrath, vice president of policy and research at NAHB.

“Where the workers went is not completely clear, why they left is obviously due to the downturn, and you can’t overstate how severe that downturn was, we had the six worst years for housing and construction since World War II,” Emrath told WikiTribune.

Construction is a highly market-dependent industry. After the historic housing boom of After the historic housing boom of 2005-6, jobs evaporated in the recession which started in 2008′. (Economist). 

National Association of Home Builders advocates for a guest worker program

Chief executive of the NAHB, Jerry Howard, speculated in an interview with Forbes that these workers probably pursued higher education or left for something more stable. If the reason for this dropout rate is true, it certainly doesn’t help fight the perception that construction is not a long-term career option.

Foreign-worker shortage

The second and arguably larger effect of the recession was that it incentivized immigrant laborers to return to their home countries. In California, where the number of foreign workers hovered around 40 percent in 2013, changes in immigration are palpable (NAHB).

Almost 200,000 Mexican immigrants came to the United States the year after the recession, which was down from 424,000 in 2007 (Migration Policy Institute). President Donald J. Trump’s stance on immigration exacerbated a pre-existing downward trend.

The National Association of Home Builders, a major lobby group that has supported Trump in the past, advocates for a guest worker program that would “fill labor gaps.”

Emrath of NAHB says tales of foreign workers returning south of the border are common for home builders in California and Texas. As these states grapple with the fallout of wildfires and Hurricane Harvey respectively, the time it takes to train new workers takes is something they can ill afford.

“Construction labor should be one of the important skills that people should be allowed into the country to help us with,” Emrath says.

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