To build more homes, contractors say they need more immigrant workers

To build more homes, contractors say they need more immigrant workers - Business and Finance - News

The Construction Industry’s Urgent Need for Legal Immigrant Workers: A Perspective from Tilson Custom Home Builders

The labor crisis in the construction industry is a pressing issue for Eddie Martin, CEO of Tilson Custom Home Builders in Austin, Texas. The lack of skilled workers such as electricians, carpenters, and plumbers is hindering his business’s growth. This labor shortage is further exacerbated by an aging workforce and a dwindling number of young workers entering the industry.

Martin, whose family-owned company has been in operation since 1932, is currently managing 500 housing units for teachers, police officers, firefighters, and other middle-class individuals. However, the labor shortage has forced him to extend completion time from nine months to 14 months for new projects, resulting in potential clients walking away due to longer wait times. If his contractors could increase their workforce by a third, Tilson could potentially build an additional 175 homes annually.

To address this issue, Martin and other industry professionals have been advocating for Congress to create or expand existing work visa programs that would enable them to hire more immigrants. Some are also pushing for the expedited processing of work authorizations for asylum seekers, allowing them to begin training earlier instead of waiting the federally mandated 180 days.

The demand for housing and infrastructure projects is on the rise, with President Joe Biden’s recent initiatives to lower housing costs and increase supply. However, the politics surrounding immigration at the southern border have stalled any progress on new legislation that would allow more documented immigrants into the country to fill the labor gap.

The construction industry, which had 413,000 job openings in January, needs to bring on over 700,000 new workers each year due to retirements and other workforce losses. Nearly one in five construction workers were age 55 or older in 2021, with the share of immigrants in the industry only recently rebounding after years of decline due to pandemic restrictions and immigration policies.

Immigrants make up nearly a quarter of the construction workforce in 2022, according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), but more are needed as American-born workers aren’t filling the gap. The industry is collaborating with schools, colleges, and vocational programs to develop the next generation of construction workers, but progress has been slow due in part to parents and educators discouraging students from pursuing careers in construction.

The H-2B visa program, the primary means for construction companies to bring in immigrant labor on a temporary basis, has limitations due to the cap on visas, intense competition, and year-round operations of many construction firms. Industry groups have also advocated for a new visa program for industries requiring temporary workers with some skills but not a college degree, which would address the unique needs of construction firms.

While there have been proposed bills to create such a visa, they haven’t gained significant traction in Congress. The industry is also advocating for expanding the number of H-2B visas and providing additional funding for technical education and training to help bridge the labor gap.

Despite these challenges, the need for more workers in the construction industry remains urgent as demand for housing, commercial development, and infrastructure projects continues to grow. The nation is estimated to require an additional 1.5 million housing units, with non-residential development expected to flourish due to federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act and the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Construction firms like Midlands Contracting, which specializes in sewer, water, and storm sewer projects in Nebraska, Kansas, and the Midwest, are unable to secure additional labor despite constant efforts to hire locally. The competition for skilled workers is fierce, with manufacturers and meatpackers being major competitors for labor in the region. Midlands applied for H-2B visas a few years ago but was ultimately unsuccessful, leaving them unable to meet the growing demand for their services without access to more legal immigrant workers.