Immigrant tradesmen play a vital role in the growth and sustainability of the home building industry. Yet as the economy recovers, construction companies are facing a shortage of qualified workers—both craft professionals and laborers.
Unfortunately for the sector, current immigration laws disproportionately affect businesses with fluctuating work needs such as home building, road construction, heavy industrial production, specialty trade contractors, and material suppliers, which rely heavily on less-skilled immigrant workers.
An increasing number of NAHB members surveyed since June 2012 is reporting shortages in all aspects of the industry from carpenters, excavators, framers, roofers, plumbers, bricklayers, HVAC, building maintenance managers, and weatherization workers. In the most recent survey released last month, 46 percent of builders polled said the labor shortage delayed projects from being completed on time; 15 percent had to turn down projects; and 9 percent lost or cancelled sales due to not being able to find enough qualified workers. More than half of builders indicated that labor shortages caused them to pay higher wages or subcontractor bids to secure the project and consequently raised home prices.
A major deficiency in the 1986 immigration law was its lack of a legal program to address the issue of a pathway for foreign workers to enter the United States. Because the 1986 law did not create a legal system, foreign workers searching for economic opportunity crossed into the country illegally. The NAHB recently joined four other construction associations in sending a joint letter to eight U.S. senators who are working to craft a reasonable and balanced approach for immigration reform.
The letter called for any reform effort to include strengthening border security and to find a reasonable, rational way of dealing with the current undocumented population in the U.S.—which by various estimates totals more than 11 million. The NAHB and other organizations also are recommending any new immigration law to include a program that opens a legal path for foreign workers to enter the United States when the economy needs them and limits the number of workers entering when the U.S. economy contracts.
Immigration reform items
A successful future guest worker program must include the following:
• An annual visa cap that fluctuates based on a demand-driven system that reflects the real economic needs of the nation.
• An opportunity for home builders and other employers to petition for an approved slot that allows them to hire visa-holding foreign workers and replace those workers if and when they move onto another approved job slot.
• A time period for job slot approvals and approved visas that reflects a long enough time period to ensure the training investment made by employers is not lost.
• A program that requires employers to treat these legal foreign workers in the same manner as U.S. workers—with all of the same benefits, workforce protections, and wage rates as similarly situated workers at the same location.
• A dual-intent process that allows some foreign workers who have demonstrated a commitment to their jobs and their communities to choose to petition for a change of status to a permanent legal status in the United States, while also incentivizing most foreign workers to return to their home country at the end of their visa period.
Additionally, the construction community should be interested in supporting the implementation of an efficient, practical, and accurate employment verification system that provides ample protection from liability for employers who comply with the system in good faith. This system should be phased in according to company size and should not burden employers financially or functionally. Importantly, like other employers in other sectors, home builders and other construction companies need a employment verification system that holds all U.S. employers accountable for the work authorization status of their direct employees. This system should not create vicarious liability by holding employers accountable for the hiring decisions made by entities with whom they have a contract, subcontract, or exchange.
Finally, immigration reform should include an earned pathway to legal status for undocumented workers who meet qualifying criteria. Some industries today are dealing with a shortage of specialized and educated workers. Consequently, the gap created by the lack of U.S. workers, the void of legal immigration programs for less-skilled workers, and a growing American economy has been filled by undocumented workers.
Providing a seamless pathway to permanent legal status for undocumented workers who have filled jobs left open by U.S. citizens will help companies continue to prosper and expand as the lagging economy improves. Any reform also should include a fix to the visa process and numerical limitations.