History and Hope: The State of the Workforce
The state of Houston’s Commercial Construction Craft Workforce is an increasingly frequent topic of conversation with contractors and owners. These discussions always prompt worry and concern. And, well they should. Here are the brutal facts:
- For the past 30 years, the industry has been unable to attract young Americans to study the construction trades. Craftwork is currently unattractive to high school graduates as a career path, and it is further discouraged as a choice by both parents and guidance counselors; it has become the career of last resort.
- The industry does not have legal access to the number of immigrant workers it needs. Comprehensive immigration reform has not yet been achieved; an extremely focused effort to get this done is well underway, but the real unknown on this topic remains political will.
- As a result, many commercial construction workers are here illegally. They live in the shadows, in constant fear of deportation, with no ability to obtain or renew driver’s licenses or get appropriate medical care. Many have been here for years with American-born children; they are hard-working and law-abiding, the type of people any country would be proud to have. But to date, they have no way to gain legal status or a pathway to citizenship.
- This leaves many commercial construction projects at the mercy of an ICE (Immigration Compliance Enforcement) raid. Action by Homeland Security could slow down most projects and even bring some to a complete halt.
- Further, some immigrants are being severely abused by unscrupulous contractors. This takes many forms from failing to pay them at all to cheating them on both pay rate and hours. Construction Citizen is constantly monitoring and reporting this deplorable behavior. They also are giving wonderful support and coverage to the fine organizations who are working for justice for these people. Those few rotten apples that engage in these practices are an embarrassment to an otherwise great commercial construction industry.
- Finally, the industry no longer offers, on any scale, those basic benefits that most other industries offer to attract and retain skilled workers. Skills’ training is sporadic at best, mainly conducted by individual companies, taught by aging craftsman who were formally trained in registered apprenticeship programs, but who will soon retire. The remaining formal apprenticeship programs offered by many unions have minimum enrollments and have also undergone significant geographic consolidation. Health insurance is not a standard benefit at the craft worker level, and 401(K) type plans are rare. Does the industry really offer a “career” for craft workers?
These facts are certainly alarming and sobering; hopefully they are also motivating – a call to action and change. They portray an industry that has basically lost control of its most essential resource: the skilled craft worker that can put his trades’ work in place according to the project schedule and with the level of quality outlined in the plans and specs. In this era where technology has become “the God we worship now”, (a phrase by Ernest Hemingway), it is easy to get confused. The threshold reason a contractor is hired is not because of estimating or scheduling software, not because of LEED Accreditations or IPD (Integrated Project Delivery) Contracts, not even because of the very impressive BIM programs. The primary reason a contractor is hired is to put work in place with skilled craft workers, period! This is the real blocking and tackling that makes construction a great industry. We need to re-focus on this priority.
Two questions arise: How did an industry full of very smart people get into this precarious position with its most vital resource? And, even more importantly, how do we regain control and have the workforce we will need to build all the structures Houston will require in the coming years?
Editor’s note: In part two of this series next week, Pat Kiley’s article Construction Craftwork as a Career will continue as he begins by answering his first question with a story from his personal history and experience in the industry over the past 50 years.