Shortage of workers weighs on rebuilding
It could take years before many repairs in Texas, Florida are done
Contractors told Mindy Gronauer that repairs on her four-bedroom Houston house — whose main floor was destroyed by flooding from Hurricane Harvey — should be completed in about four months.
“That’s not going to happen,” the 64-year-old retiree says. She figures it will take more like a year, noting that all 159 homes in her neighborhood sustained similar damage, and worker crews are scarce.
A construction worker shortage in Texas and Florida is slowing rebuilding efforts, which got underway a few weeks ago after many houses dried out and many claims for insurance and government assistance were filed. Builders and their trade groups say it likely will be several years before all the repairs are done.
“There was a significant labor shortage in the construction sector before the hurricanes,” says Jerry Howard, CEO of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). The storms, he adds, compounded the crunch.
The Labor Department recently said the construction industry added just 11,000 jobs in October, below its average monthly pace of 14,700 so far this year. The limited hiring partly reflects worker shortages, NAHB Chief Economist Robert Dietz says.
Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in late August and Irma lashed Florida in early September. About 135,000 homes out of about 2.4 million in the Houston area were damaged or destroyed, according to the Greater Houston Builders Association and the Texas Association of Builders. In regions that were affected across the state of Texas, as many as 1 million houses out of 2.8 million suffered at least some damage.
Not all of them will be restored. The vast majority were not covered by flood insurance, and some people who can’t afford the repairs will simply walk away, says Don Klein, incoming president of the Houston builders group.
During and after the housing crash, the number of U.S. residential construction jobs plunged by 1.5 million, and only about half have come back, NAHB says. Many workers left the industry for oil, trucking and manufacturing jobs, says Ken Simonson, chief economist of Associated General Contractors, a trade group. During the downturn, the construction labor force plunged by 25% to 8.9 million people. Despite the partial rebound, the labor force in 2016 was still 1.6 million workers short of the 2007 peak of 11.9 million, Labor figures show.
Part of the problem is that thousands of Baby Boomer construction workers are retiring each year. And few young people are taking their spots, which can pay upward of $20 an hour.
At the same time, the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigrants is reducing the number of foreign workers available. Nearly 30% of construction trade workers were foreignborn in 2015, according to NAHB, but the share was higher in states such as Texas and Florida.
Not all homes damaged by hurricanes in Texas and Florida will be restored. The vast majority were not covered by flood insurance, and some people who can’t afford the repairs will simply walk away. DAVID J. PHILLIP/AP