Solving housing's labor problem

March 13, 2014

Although recovery for home building has been looking up for a while—with new-home starts in 2013 up 18 percent over 2012 and new-home sales in January at their highest level since July 2008—coming out of the housing recession completely is proving harder than any of us thought it would be. There has been one obstacle after another, each one as difficult to tackle as the last: foreclosures, homeowners unable to sell homes that were underwater, excess inventory, unemployment, banks not lending money for mortgages, banks not lending money for construction, material shortages, a scarcity of buildable land, and labor shortages.

Some of these problems are being resolved, slowly but surely. Foreclosures are way down, rising home prices have helped the underwater homeowners, inventory has gone in the opposite direction, unemployment numbers are improving, banks are starting to loosen their tightly held purse strings, and building-product manufacturers are ramping up smartly. We’re not out of the woods entirely on any of these issues, and there undoubtedly will be more hiccups to come, but there does seem to be light at the end of each tunnel.
As far as land is concerned, things are starting to move. Maybe not soon enough and maybe not where and at the price you’d like, but there is money to be made in land and there are people eager to make it. Entrepreneurs have been snapping up raw land for some time now with an eye toward entitlement, and those sitting on projects shuttered during the downturn are dusting them off for new buyers.
And labor? This may be the toughest nut to crack. The number of people who left the construction industry because of the recession is huge. And unlike land, they aren’t just sitting still, waiting to be put into service. Many former industry employees found jobs in other fields, and many of them are fully invested in their new careers. In addition, there are very few new prospects in the pipeline because, honestly, home building hasn’t seemed like a very promising place to be for quite some time.
Industry consultant Scott Sedam has been sounding the alarm about this crisis in our pages, urging builders to be proactive about finding and nurturing new talent. In this issue, Noelle Tarabulski adds her suggestions on the topic, and Scott also offers ways to attract and keep the good trades who are still around.
But the bottom line for the labor issue is that it’s your problem to solve. Immigration reform may help, but there simply have to be more avenues into the industry for young men and women, whether it’s through trade schools or on-the-job training.
I know some will say that young people in this country are not interested in home building and don’t have the desire to work as hard as you  need to in order to succeed in this industry. To that, I say, read our 40 Under 40 story, and take heart.
editorial director

Denise Dersin, editorial director of Professional Builder, Custom Builder, PRODUCTS, NKBA Innovation+Inspiration, and co-editor of Multifamily Design+Construction, has been in publishing as an editor and writer for 30 years and has worked in the housing industry for much of that time.