Illegal Trades

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What would you do tomorrow if the government arrested a third of your workforce today? Could you open the doors? Meet your contract obligations?

August 01, 2006

What would you do tomorrow if the government arrested a third of your workforce today? Could you open the doors? Meet your contract obligations?

In some segments of the construction industry, illegal immigrants account for nearly a third of the workforce. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 36 percent of all insulation workers and 29 percent of roofers and drywall installers are undocumented immigrants. Overall, 14 percent of all construction labor are undocumented.

I don't care where you fall on the political spectrum. If you're in housing, those numbers force a business realization that trumps politics. Without an immigrant workforce — which currently includes illegal immigrants — an industry that has for years been unable to meet capacity due to short labor supply will face revenue declines, increasing customer dissatisfaction and heightened product quality issues.

But guess what? Illegal immigration isn't the issue here. Political gamesmanship is making it the hot topic, but the real issue is the value we place on skilled labor. If the skilled workforce were valued in America at the level it used to be, we would be able to increase compensation, attract more career-oriented people and reduce our rapacious need to throw warm bodies at construction projects. Without the enticement of easily available jobs, would we still see streams of people trekking north and flooding our borders? I don't think so.

Politically and culturally, though, it's easier to fix the immigration problem than it is to cause Americans to view people who work with their hands as essential and valuable and, therefore, worthy of earning a living commensurate with their skills.

Growing up, I knew carpenters who owned their homes, raised children and sent them to college. They did that on one salary. That can't be done now.

It's even worse for trades that require less skill. It's no coincidence that insulation, drywall installation and roofing are the trades that attract the most illegal immigrants. Although those trades do require skill and people who are good at them are highly skilled, they do not require the level of skill that electricians, plumbers, HVAC installation or trim carpenters do.

Now I don't have visions of a utopian, agrarian society that raises carpenters and plumbers to an exalted status equal to basketball players. But I would dearly like to see our industry and the country begin to value skilled trades people.

They are craftsmen. And craftsmanship is a good thing.


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