Short­age of work­ers weighs on re­build­ing

It could take years be­fore many re­pairs in Texas, Florida are done

USA TODAY International Edition - - MONEY - Paul David­son

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

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