This column originally appeared in the San Diego Transcript on July 27, 2018
The ongoing recovery in the American economy has renewed investment in residential, commercial, and business development. It’s a welcome change for construction businesses like mine and those of my fellow members of the Associated Builders and Contractors of San Diego (ABCSD).
But this turnaround is straining our already significant challenges in sourcing qualified laborers and skilled craft professionals to take full advantage of this economic boom. Worker shortages were high on the list of concerns at the recent ABC Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C., where I was involved in the Workforce Development member discussion group. Our Merit Shop members are putting tremendous effort into initiatives to recruit and train Americans to work in the construction industry. But so far, it isn’t enough to fill the gaps today and the coming voids for the next few years of projected growth.
For two decades, the construction industry has worked with federal immigration officials and with Congressional leaders to address problems in the legal immigration system in the U.S., but these efforts have not managed to keep pace with the needs of the construction industry as a whole. When we have a drought of local talent, we need to entice new talent from abroad.
There are legal immigration and/or temporary worker programs in place that are not open to foreign-born construction workers seeking careers. Current temporary worker programs such as the H-2B visa don’t offer any support to the construction industry. We need a new, market driven visa for temporary foreign workers to enter the U.S. when our economy needs them, one that can be dialed back when the economy contracts.
We could pursue opening the current student visa program to construction learning programs and apprenticeship programs. The Department of Labor will award up to $150 million in H-1B funds to approximately 15 to 30 apprenticeship programs, with awards ranging from $1 million to $12 million.
The Merit Shop Industry needs to ensure lobbying is in place to direct these efforts across the industry as a whole, and not have them isolated to programs supported by Project Labor Agreements. The industry would like to see an increase in the visa period and in the overall cap to help fill current labor gaps and stimulate employment sufficient to meet our current needs.
During our conference, ABC San Diego’s representatives brought this issue to the forefront. We urged our congressional representatives to pursue this, so we will not stall our robust growth potential and the economic benefits to our region. In turn, construction employers need to recognize our roles and responsibilities to control illegal immigration and avoid pursuing the path of paying undocumented immigrants for work performed on our sites.
Employers who hold the line at flouting the law are the first line of defense. In simple economic terms, if there is no source of income for undocumented immigrants, then the well would eventually dry up. This, also, would spur efforts to introduce more legal immigrants, who could be sponsored by member firms. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are by necessity secondary lines of defense in this area, due to their priority mission keeping our nation secure.
Employer sponsored programs exist to drive recruitment in other industries, such as information technology. Why can’t there be a similar program created for the construction industry? We have an existing model we can borrow we already know is viable.
Today, one-quarter of the American construction workforce is foreign-born, a total of 2.2 million construction workers. It is a larger number overall than in agriculture or manufacturing. Construction work provides opportunity to immigrants as a source of income, in building employment skills, and even in building entrepreneurial skills. The share of foreign-born workers in the U.S. construction workforce has remained consistently high for the last decade despite the construction downturn during the Great Recession and its subsequent recovery.
Contrast this to surveys which show only three percent of 18 to 25 year old American born citizens are interested in construction careers. While we need to work to change perceptions about the construction industry among American-born students and their families, our immediate workforce problem demands that immigration reform be addressed now.
The economic health of the construction industry and millions of Americans is hanging in the balance. We have an opportunity to update our nation’s infrastructure and build new homes, hospitals, schools, and roads. Career construction offers limitless opportunities from learning skills to becoming entrepreneurs to running a business and creating new jobs. Legal Iimmigrants have literally built the America we know today, and will continue to contribute to our prosperity given the chance.
Walter Fritz is President and CEO of Nuera Group LP, and chairman of the Associated Builders and Contractors San Diego board of directors. For more information visit www.abcsd.org