A Sustainable Workforce Starts With You

Hurricane Harvey Anniversary Highlights Workforce Challenges for Gulf Coast

I'm in the middle of reading Joe Holley's fantastic book about the convergence of a devastating storm called Hurricane Harvey and the baseball season that led to the first World Series win for my Houston Astros, which not that long ago were often derisively called the "Lastros" because they were always in last place.

The book, titled Hurricane Season, tracks the "Unforgettable Story of the 2017 Houston Astros and the Resilience of a City" following one of the worst natural disasters in United States history.

Now one year after Harvey's landfall on the Texas coast, there is still much work ahead for the city of Houston, the state of Texas, and the nation to address the  workforce challenges that were exacerbated at a time when the construction industry was already stretched thin for a variety of reasons.

The problem was quite evident in September of last year:

Rebuilding after Hurricane Harvey’s destruction will be especially painful due to the shortage of skilled workers the area was suffering from even before the storm hit. The article, titled Labor shortage could hamper Harvey reconstruction, quotes Texas Association of Builders executive director Scott Norman as saying, “There is not enough skilled labor to meet this challenge today, immediately.”

Also last September, experts came together at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston to talk about the need for leaders in Washington to step up and address the nation’s broken immigration system. But as the moderator noted at the time, such a discussion could not be had without taking Harvey’s devastation into account:

“We have to talk about Houston as an immigrant city,” said moderator Kate Vickery, who noted that nearly 600,000 undocumented people live in the Bayou City. “We can’t not talk about that,” she said, which is why the event was called “Undocumented City.”

“Immigration impacts the work that you do whether you know it or not,” Vickery said to kick off the event that had not been originally planned to focus on Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath. Any discussion of Houston’s future, however, would need to include the storm, Vickery said.

There was already an “extreme” shortage of workers in Southeast Texas prior to Hurricane Harvey, said Stan Marek, President and CEO of MAREK. “Now that we have this terrible catastrophe, I don’t know where we’re going to get the workers to rebuild Houston.” Marek said the construction industry’s challenge in finding a robust workforce will be much different from the aftermath of previous disasters like Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 or Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.

Construction CEOs and other business leaders told Texas lawmakers in December that more legal workers will be needed to rebuild the Gulf Coast. The Texas House, at the direction of retiring Speaker Joe Straus, had convened a special committee to look at potential economic pitfalls for the state. Workforce was front and center. And it was clear from the testimony that some of the decisions made by lawmakers in Austin were counterproductive to say the least: 

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo told lawmakers the “show me your papers law,” Senate Bill 4, has also made the job of law enforcement more difficult. The law has created a perception among many immigrants – both documented and undocumented – that they cannot trust law enforcement.

“It is detrimental to community policing,” Chief Acevedo said, adding that the immigration crackdown has also been economically damaging as well. For example, 550 of Acevedo’s employees lived in homes damaged by Hurricane Harvey and many of them are still unable to return to those homes because rebuilding has been delayed largely by a lack of a sufficient workforce, Acevedo said.

When that committee issued its report, a key finding was that the immigration crackdown ordered by Gov. Greg Abbott is a threat to future workforce needs.

With Labor Day fast approaching, it’s appropriate to revisit what we published on this subject at that time – because the words are just as true today:

This Labor Day comes at a moment when Houston and the Gulf Coast will need more blue-collar tradesmen and women than ever before thanks to the devastation left by Hurricane Harvey over the last week. While we at Construction Citizen honor the skilled workforce, we also recognized this simple truth: It will be more difficult to find the people who will do the work.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, more than 100,000 Hispanic workers – documented and undocumented – made their way to the Gulf Coast to help with the recovery after the storm. Much the same happened in Houston after Tropical Storm Allison devastated the city in 2001, causing $9 billion in damage.  

Several factors will now make attracting such a workforce to this state even more difficult, including the passage of a ban on “sanctuary cities” that’s already caused many authorized and unauthorized workers to flee. Construction executives from Houston to Dallas have told us that workers have not shown up on jobsites because they're worried local police will round them up.

Here you can find all of Construction Citizen’s coverage of the rebuilding effort following Harvey. Feel free to check back as we add to our coverage going forward.