The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, May 23, 2014

Home builders pretend there's a labor shortage Can't imagine why...

By The Building Tradesman

It’s five o’clock somewhere. And maybe there’s a construction worker shortage, too, somewhere. But it’s not significant in the U.S., and it’s not very widespread.

That’s the word from the Economic Policy Institute, which issued a report on May 5 titled, “No sign of labor shortages in construction: there are seven unemployed construction workers for every job opening.”

From the report: “The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) wants you to believe their members face a serious shortage of construction workers, even though construction employment is more than 1.7 million jobs below its pre-recession peak, and unemployed construction workers outnumber job openings in construction by well over seven-to-one.

“More and more news stories, even in respected sources like NPR and the Wall Street Journal, repeat the builders’ talking points and toss around wage figures with very limited resemblance to reality,” the EPI said.

So why would the home builders want to perpetuate the myth of a construction worker shortage?

“Their chief motivation behind this effort,” says a statement from North America’s Building Trades Unions, “is their collective desire to see a new, expanded and virtually unlimited foreign guest worker program for the construction industry. By convincing lawmakers that there simply are not enough American workers to fill job openings in construction, these associations believe that Congress will be amenable to expanding the foreign guest worker program – known as the H2b visa program – so that construction employers would have virtually unlimited access to an imported labor force.”

The Economic Policy Institute’s Ross Eisenbrey and Heidi Shierholz write that “the best way to identify a tight labor market, let alone a market beset by actual labor shortages, is to examine wages.” They cited a Wall Street Journal article describing a frenzied search for skilled labor, causing pay to soar “to boom-time levels and beyond.”

But “boom-time” levels of pay are in the eye of the beholder. “While it’s true that construction wages have risen over the past two years,” Eisenbrey and Shierholz write, “they’ve risen from such a deep depression that they are still well below the levels of 2009. In fact, the real hourly wages of residential building workers are still 4.2 percent below 2009, a loss significantly deeper than that of the overall private sector workforce, whose wages are 0.9 percent below 2009.”

North America’s Building Trades Unions said expanding guest worker visas “would enable contractors to continue to keep labor costs stagnant (as they have been for the last 40 years in the U.S. construction industry) by utilizing low-cost, easily exploitable foreign imported labor.”