Labor Shortage in Construction Trades?

By Edythe Kelleher, Executive Director, Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation (SFDC)

Rose Quint, an economist with the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) presented data to a June meeting of the NVBIA Finance Committee (NVBIA = Northern Virginia Building Industry Association). Builders in many areas of the country are experiencing mild to severe labor shortages. Because of high numbers of immigrants to the Washington, DC metropolitan area, builders here have not faced the same difficulties.

Attempting to get to the heart of the problem, NAHB has collected data and conducted surveys of thousands of high school students. The findings are sobering for the industry: Fewer than 3% of students are even interested in the building trades. Those with an interest cite the opportunity to work outdoors, and the potential to eventually operate their own businesses.

Those not interested in the building trades professions list reasons such as unwillingness to work outdoors, perceived heavy labor, and better-paid opportunities in other professions. When asked how much salary would attract them to work in the trades, responses were generally 50 – 100% more than those jobs in fact pay.

NAHB recommends a two-prong approach. First, educationally, teach that plumbers, electricians, carpenters and the like are respectable professions that can earn decent paychecks. Second, logistically, builders need to start participating in the H-2B Visa program.

Unlike the better-known H-1B Visa program, which allows specially-trained immigrants to work in the United States, the H-2B program is intended to bring in foreign workers to do nonagricultural, temporary jobs. Currently capped at 66,000 annually, the program is maxed out every year with positions such as landscapers and lifeguards.* Adding the building industry as a participant could create greater competition for these visas, resulting in fewer landscaping workers and reduced hours of operation at your local swimming pool.

* To read why these jobs are no longer filled by American teens, check out this story: