Trump Wants to Build a Wall. Finding Workers Won’t Be Easy

  • Cost of construction labor already rising with hands scarce
  • Unemployment in the trade is 4.5%, the lowest in a decade

Who’s Going to Pay for Trump’s Border Wall?

President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall faces many obstacles. One of the tallest: building it without undocumented workers.

A labor shortage has left few hands to build houses and factories in the region, where wages have already been rising and projects delayed. Now, the president’s plan for “immediate construction of a border wall” will force the government to find legal builders for a project that could employ thousands if not tens of thousands. About half of construction workers in Texas are undocumented, and nationwide 14 percent lack authorization for employment in the U.S., according to the Workers Defense Project, an Austin group that advocates for undocumented laborers. 

“If he is going to build a wall with legal workers in Texas, he is going to have a very hard time,” said Stan Marek, chief executive officer of Marek Brothers, a Houston commercial builder. “There is a real shortage of legal labor.”

The wall, whose cost has been estimated as high as $25 billion, is shaping up to be one of America’s biggest public-works projects since the building of the Hoover Dam during the Great Depression. Trump, who has promised to create jobs by investing more than half a trillion dollars in massive infrastructure projects, will face practical obstacles. While many people think of the border as little more than desert, the almost 2,000-mile terrain includes sand dunes, arroyos and craggy mountains. New roads and temporary concrete plants may have to be built to reach the most desolate areas.

“Contractors in general throughout the country have been saying it’s been difficult to get workers,” said Ken Simonson, chief economist at the Associated General Contractors of America. “Getting workers who would be vetted to work on government projects and then getting them to these locations, which are pretty far away, would be among the many challenges in getting this done.”

Presidential Favor

Companies might jump at the wall job, both for profit and proximity to the president, and it is always possible to find workers if you pay them enough. Average hourly construction wages are at $28.42 per hour, up 3 percent over the previous year -- the fastest annual increase since 2009, according to the Associated General Contractors. Wages for undocumented workers are generally lower, said Simonson, but he didn’t have a specific figure.

The region’s construction industry already is in fierce competition with oil and gas producers that can pay much higher than jobs on a construction site. The shortage is so acute that subcontractors already are using unconventional means to find workers. The Central Texas Subcontractor Association is partnering with non-profit Goodwill Industries to teach skills. Irving, Texas-based Astro Sheet Metal Co. has given up on hiring experienced workers and instead expects to train workers from the ground up.

Nationwide, two-thirds of construction firms are having difficulty finding workers, according to an August survey by the Associated General Contractors. In Texas, with 1,254 miles of border, 67 percent of builders had trouble finding concrete workers and 63 percent couldn’t find enough cement masons, the group found.

“What happens when an already tight housing industry loses a substantial portion of its labor force to more stringent enforcement of immigration policies, to infrastructure projects, and to possibly build a wall between Mexico and the United States?” said Mark Boud of San Clemente, California, who is chief economist for real-estate research firm Metrostudy. “Labor shortages and rising labor costs which already plague the housing market will be magnified, and residential construction costs may surge.”

Marek said his firm, which operates throughout Texas and focuses on interior work, has been turning down jobs because it can’t find enough skilled, legal labor. He said a solution would be a guest worker visa program or giving legal status to immigrants already in the country.

Suddenly Scarce

Much has changed for builders since the 18-month Great Recession, which ended in 2009. As unemployment among construction workers topped 27 percent and the housing recovery trailed that of other industries, 2.3 million workers lost their jobs and many left the profession for good. Younger workers were deterred from entering, and many contractors and subcontractors closed. Combine that shrinking labor market with a booming housing market and you have the perfect recipe for a labor shortage. Unemployment in the construction sector dropped to 4.5 percent over the summer, the lowest level in a decade.

The number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. has been falling since the 2008 recession, partly because of the housing crash and loss of construction jobs, and also because of an improving economy in Mexico. There were 11.1 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. in 2014, the most recent data available, according to the Pew Research Center.

The cohort of unauthorized construction workers declined to 1.2 million in 2012, down 23 percent from five years earlier, Pew said. Central Americans recently fleeing gang violence and seeking asylum in the U.S. tend to be less skilled in construction than Mexicans. While building a wall is less complex than a skyscraper, it would still take workers with skills in areas like carpentry, cement forming and tie wiring.

Still, young people think “swinging a hammer” is for unaccomplished people, said Wendy Lambert, executive director of the Central Texas Subcontractor Association, a stereotype she says is unwarranted. She said one of her members, a roofer, has the equivalent of 65 full-time jobs open.

“Eight to 10 years ago people were beating down their doors looking for jobs,” she said.

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