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.