Immigrant Workers in Construction

A new study from NAHB Economics examines where construction workers come from by analyzing the most recent 2011 American Community Survey (ACS). The results show that immigrants have been an important source of new recruits to the construction industry—accounting for 22 percent of the overall labor force. The inflow of foreign born labor into construction is cyclical and coincides with the overall housing activity. Their share was rising rapidly during the housing boom years when labor shortages were widespread and serious. But even during the severe housing downturn and a period of high unemployment the construction labor force continued to recruit new immigrants to partially replace native and foreign born workers leaving the industry.

Particularly, immigrants are concentrated in some of the trades needed to build a home, like carpenters, painters, drywall/ceiling tile installers, brick masons, and construction laborers – trades that require less training and education but consistently register some of the highest labor shortages in the (HMI) surveys. The two most prevalent construction occupations, laborers and carpenters, account for about 30 percent of the construction labor force. More than a third of all construction laborers and one out of four carpenters are of foreign born origin. Immigrants account for almost half of drywall/ceiling tile installers and tapers, a trade where 44 percent of workers do not have a high school diploma. More than a third of all carpet/floor/tile installers and painters did not finish high school, immigrants account for 43 percent of workers in these occupations.

 The immigrant presence in construction trades that require more years of education and advanced skills looks less relevant. The trades with low presence of foreign born labor, such as electricians, construction and building inspectors, first-line supervisors, elevator installers – tend to recruit better educated workers. Only 4 percent of construction and building inspectors and 7 percent of electricians did not graduate from high school.

 It turns out the trades with high concentration of immigrant workers also tend to have more vacancies and labor shortages. According to NAHB’s monthly Housing Market Index (HMI) surveys, construction trades with the most consistent labor shortages are framing crews, carpenters and bricklayers. About 30 percent of surveyed builders were still reporting some shortages of labor in these trades in June 2012, even though the shortages were not nearly as severe as in the midst of the housing boom. Nine months later, in March 2013, reported labor shortages got worse across all trades but particularly among framing crews and carpenters, with more than a half of respondents reporting shortages of framing crews and carpenters-rough subcontractors.

The study further shows that the distribution of immigrant construction workers is not even across the US, with some states drawing more than a third of their construction workers from abroad. States that traditionally rely on foreign born labor but lost its significant share during the housing downturn – such as Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and Georgia – are most likely to experience difficulties in filling out construction job vacancies once home building takes off.Imm_figures



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  1. Amazing that the word illegal immigrants is not used once in this article. I have 15 years experience in management in the production housing industry. My last project before the bust as a project superintendent was a 200 unit multifamily project where my boss, the senior project manager, estimated from 50% to 70% of the workforce was illegal.

    The fact is home builders during the boom made fat profits due to utilizing cheap, illegal labor. Here in Colorado, the home building industry has consistently opposed any efforts to crack down on illegal employment by high powered lobbying efforts. The home builders even got a Republican governor to reverse his position on this issue so the industry could continue hiring cheap, illegal labor.

    Obviously since the home building industry is the chief beneficiary of the illegal labor being used, its not surprising your article fails to use the word illegal and conveniently avoids the issue.

  2. Lon, we now call these people “undocumented”…. it is truly astounding that construction companies have been given a free pass on the ICE regulations, isn’t it? I know one plumbing contractor who gets raided by immigration several times a year; “undocumented” workers are hauled off, and three more take their place the next day. The guy stays in business. Deeply disturbing is the tendency to treat these workers as essentially disposable – safety regulations don’t apply to illegals. One can only wonder if these mistreated workers take revenge, a la “waiter spits in obnoxious patron’s soup” with hazardous construction?

  3. We don’t have an illegal immigration problem in this country, we have an illegal employment problem in this country.

    During the housing boom with the huge influx of “undocumented” workers, there was exactly four prosecutions of employers for knowingly hiring “undocumented” workers during the entire 8 years of the Bush administration. That’s a laugh.

    I agree on your assessment of these workers as being “disposable”. We have created an underclass that is exploited in the pursuit of profits for a few without the basic safeguards all those who work for a living deserve.

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