Immigration and the Leadership Gap—the Readers Speak

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Reader response on the labor shortage, immigrant workers, and the need for action comes flowing in. Here’s a sampling

May 26, 2017

In almost 20 years of writing a monthly column about home building, I’ve never received as many email responses as I did for my piece in the April 2017 issue, “Immigration Reform and the Leadership Gap.” In that column, I reviewed the impact of the nationwide trade shortage on home building, its critical bearing on our economy, and—with a few notable exceptions—the home building industry’s wholly inadequate response. I decided it was time to name names, and I specifically challenged the NAHB, the Leading Suppliers Council, and the Leading Builders of America to assume the leadership mantle and attack this problem head-on. I regret to say that no one from those organizations contacted, cajoled, or even chastised me. I had hoped I would get a few notes saying I was full of it, “Here you go, Sedam! Just look at what we’ve done!” Even an insult or two would have been better than silence.

So, while that didn’t pan out, I did hear from a host of others who are out there doing the daily blocking and tackling of home building. These folks, with their boots on the ground, had a lot to say. Most were supportive, although a couple challenged me on a few points. I couldn’t print excerpts from all of the letters, but what follows is a solid cross-section. I kept them anonymous so you can focus on what’s being said rather than who’s saying it. As you’ll see, there are some strong messages here. 

COO, Florida Builder 

I have young men working for me upon whom I have to—on a regular basis—impress the importance of our immigrant workers. Our Brazilian tile layers, our Mexican drywall hangers, our Honduran painters, etc. Being a second-generation American, I am particularly sensitive to the role immigrants play in our society, especially at the working-class level. I have long had the habit of saying hello to every worker on my jobsites and I try to instill that basic human skill in all of my construction managers. I learned this 25 years ago from my good friend Miguel, a degreed engineer from Mexico City. He couldn’t get a job as an engineer here in the United States, so he started a drywall company. One day back when I was with a national builder, I was walking jobs with Miguel in Orlando. As I walked out of the garage, one of the workers stopped me and offered me tacos wrapped in aluminum foil he had just taken off the warm engine block of his truck. I declined (I rarely eat lunch), but Miguel stopped me and made me sit down and eat with his guys. He later explained that they have little, so the fact that they offered me something was the biggest form of respect. Never decline such an act of respect. I remember that to this day. 

Real Estate Agent, Northern California

I opened my partner’s Professional Builder magazine this morning looking for kitchen and bathroom remodeling ideas. I stumbled upon your article about immigration. You laid out the argument so well and connected it to the all-important idea of taking action. While I’ve been horrified by how hate has become such a factor in politics today, I realize that true leadership now must come from all of us. Reasonable, actionable planning and engagement. I hope as many as possible will be brave and dedicated to understanding we should not engage in the luxury of apathy in these times.

Architect, Illinois 

You have provided several articles on immigrants, and I tell you they are not appreciated. The Congressional Budget Office has affirmed that illegal immigrants cost the U.S. taxpayer more than they are benefiting our economy. I don’t know where you are finding talented immigrants who are adding quality to the installation, but I don’t see that at all. Maybe you have lower standards? Most immigrants who don’t come through the legal process are a big problem. In too many cases, the legal process is letting us down as well. It amazes me that people think our problems will be solved by more low-skilled and low-educated immigrants. Could you find something else to write about? All your articles are about the same.

President, Florida Home Builder 

I agree that Immigration reform is way overdue and to stay on the current path is both folly and head-in-the-sand avoidance of the real issue. Both parties are to blame. A new, thoroughly thought-out guest-worker program must be instituted for the various industries you mentioned, and to make it safe to approach and enter the U.S. to work here—for whatever time period is agreed. Find out who they are, provide proper documentation, collect taxes to help compensate for services rendered while they are in the U.S., and again offer the working labor the protection and comfort to move about without concern of capture, arrest, or deportation.

My question concerns your statement on a path to citizenship for those illegals who didn’t enter the U.S. properly. Your Ethiopian story specifically noted that Tesfaye came to the U.S. legally. Why does the forgiveness of past years of illegal entry need to end in citizenship? That only bolsters the argument that you should try to get into the U.S. through any means necessary, as somehow, that effort will be rewarded with the golden ticket—which would continue to foster the element of risk to gain entry, hide, wait, and hope. 

Why can’t the current group of people who are in the country illegally follow a lower-commitment type of amnesty? One in which they can receive proper guest-worker status, with whatever goes with it. Once they get legal in the system, then perhaps they can pursue a path toward citizenship.

Industry Publisher

I appreciate your writing and your decades of dedicated attempts to improve the industry, to raise the bar, and to help builders succeed for the right reasons. My message to you is that authentic leadership is terribly hard to find. What you are trying to accomplish is important, much more important than the special interests that are in it for themselves more than for the cause. Don’t give up the fight, but choose your allies with care.

Commercial Real Estate Broker, Alabama 

Thank you for your wonderful, reasonable, and inspiring column. I believe and hope that many out there share similar ideals, to value people as people and as part of our society. I am a commercial broker and developer, not a home builder. I see the issues, however, and I hate the hypocrisy of Americans whose families were immigrants themselves, not so long ago, but now that they are established here, shun others. In Alabama, our birth rate is now below replacement level. We struggle with education. I do off-campus interviews for a top 10 university and the star candidates are second-generation immigrants. Xenophobia will crush us, if karma doesn’t get us first. Thanks again for your leadership.

Architect and Builder, Southern California 

Since April of 1963 I have had to deal with undocumented workers. All of the subcontractors we use are licensed and legal, if immigrants. The problem we face is immigrant contractors that often prey on their own people and send undocumented workers to the site. Most are very skilled in their chosen trade but lack English communication skills. I require that English be spoken on our jobsites. One of the primary requirements of citizenship is minimal English communication skills, yet in my experience, most immigrants never use English. I am as anxious as you to find a reasonable fix. Children born here to undocumented immigrants are my greatest concern. The longer a solution takes, the bigger the problem will become. 

Builder, Texas 

Bravo for saying what most in our industry will deny. My company is in the final phases of two low-rise condo projects. On our “day without immigrants,” we had exactly zero workers on our sites, and it really brought home the need to address this situation. ... Please keep up the dialogue asking for leadership!

Masonry Contractor, Colorado 

I could not agree more. We need the NAHB to be a voice in this reform. Why is it that professional sports teams can get work visas for foreign workers in a matter of days, while for everyone else it takes months or years? We should be able to sponsor workers for green cards and visas on an expedited basis. They just want to work, make a living, and pay taxes like everyone else. 

General Contractor, Texas 

I’m seldom moved by articles, but your writing and the Tesfaye story touched me sufficiently that here I am writing to strongly support the need for comprehensive immigration reform. Done right, it would be a good plan that people of good faith could agree on. We need to see different plans and different options, then point to them and decide, what do we like? Plan A, B, or C?

The plans must contain, among other things:

1. Definition of scope of the issue and problems

2. List of the types of immigrant workers needed:

     a.) Temporary workers, such as agricultural

     b.) Work permits for other seasonal work

     c.) Workers for more permanent needs 

3. A vetting process for all workers

4. A description of the government or private agency that will run the administration.

We’d ask people to vote: one to say no to, one they can live with, and one they can actively support. We need to get past the mere talking around the idea of immigration reform and into the guts of just what must be done and how it will work. 

Custom Builder, Eastern Pennsylvania 

Scott, your column in Professional Builder has moved me to do something about the problem. A longtime supporter of immigration reform, I have only bitched and complained to those who agreed or couldn’t get away from me fast enough. It’s time to begin telling our representatives, both of our industry and legislative. I am on it. 

Feedback Is Fun! 

I genuinely appreciate the time taken by all of these, and many other, writers to respond—even the architect from Illinois who thinks there are no good skilled immigrants out there and that I’ve lost the plot. I did ask him to provide the CBO evidence that undocumented aliens cost the government far more than they pay in because I have read exactly the opposite. I’m still waiting for a reply. 

At a conference last week, a friend described me as a “professional pot stirrer,” and I think you know what’s in the pot he’s referring to. Well, maybe so, but I hope even those who disagree with me know my intentions are good and that my primary concern is the sustainable health of this great industry. My experience as a young steel-mill foreman right out of college was almost identical to the Florida builder who sat down to eat tacos off the engine block. I learned that these are good people, no different from any other, who just want to earn a living and take care of their families. We need this labor. We must find a solution.

Should I further heed the plea of the architect that I find something else to write about? My fondest wish is that before long there simply will be no need to cover the trade shortage. Meanwhile, a recent NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index survey saw 82 percent of builders say they expect the trade shortage will be their No. 1 issue in 2017. Does that mean we’re ready to do something about it? 

Read again the comments from the Texas GC, above. Are you willing to help design the basis of the new immigration reform bill? I’m willing to try to write up the key principles, provided I get enough input from readers. So how about right now, start an email to scott@truen.com and begin brainstorming answers to the questions: What would comprehensive immigration reform look like? What would it do? What would it not do? Who would be included in what part, and who would not? What does a path to citizenship look like? Who would be eligible? Should we have a guest-worker program? Should we offer amnesty in any circumstances? Do we deny citizenship to children born here if one parent is undocumented? How about if both are? These are big, tough questions, but I look forward to reading your answers.  

 

Scott Sedam is president of TrueNorth Development, a consulting and training firm that works with builders to improve product, process, and profits. For a free PDF of Scott’s comprehensive article series on “Solving the Trade Shortage,” email your request to info@truen.com. You may reach Scott at scott@truen.com or 248.446.1275. 

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