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Builders push for visas as Americans eschew construction work

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Published:   |   Updated: October 27, 2013 at 10:37 AM

RIVERVIEW — Having built houses for 45 of his 61 years, Ron Williams thinks he knows why the industry is struggling to find good help these days.

People simply don't want to work, Williams said, the beads of sweat building on his forehead and muscle shirt as he sands down a staircase rail for a new home in Riverview. It's too easy for Americans to just do nothing all day, he said.

He stepped out of the two-story home's unfinished doorway and peered at a potential solution to Florida's construction labor shortage: several Hispanic laborers at work at a home a couple doors down. He assumed they were immigrants. Some national builder groups are lobbying the federal government to grant temporary work visas to construction workers for the first time.

Williams isn't ready to go that far.

“Instead of spending money to bring in foreigners, find a way to get these people (Americans) to work,” Williams said.

A proposal to create a new class of temporary visa for unskilled laborers is tucked into the massive immigration reform issue. The immigration bill that passed the Senate but hasn't yet gone through the House of Representatives would issue up to 200,000 such low-skill visas a year. Of those, a maximum of 15,000 could go to workers in the construction industry — a figure that a commercial builders' trade group, Associated Builders and Contractors, thinks is far too low.

However, interviews with workers, builders and trade groups in Florida show an uneasy support for issuing new visas to foreign construction workers, even if the Sunshine State is likely to feel some of the most severe shortages.

For example, the trade group Associated General Contractors' Greater Florida chapter doesn't want more immigrant visas in principle, said chapter executive director Matt Boles. But if the government is going to issue up to 200,000 regardless, construction needs a bigger piece of the pie, Boles said.

The labor shortage in Florida started more than a year ago as home construction started coming alive, and it shows little sign of letting up.

About 692,000 people worked in the Sunshine State's construction sector at its peak in June 2006. But that is down to 360,000 people today — a drop of nearly 50 percent, data from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity show. Trades with shortages include drywall, masonry and roofing.

Whether the shortage is delaying homes here is debated, with different stories coming from builders groups and from the laborers themselves.

Finding enough help is a challenge, but it hasn't necessarily delayed homes, said the Tampa Bay Builders Association's Jennifer Doerfel. Labor is less of a problem than the recent government shutdown, which tied up loans backed by the government or government-sponsored entities such as Fannie Mae, she said.

In the field, though, workers tell a different story.

Dale Hayes of Hudson-based Dale Hayes Masonry hears that some builders are falling behind schedule. Hayes has enough workers to keep up with his orders, but he can't possibly keep up with all the work builders want to give him.

“We are getting inundated with bid requests from national homebuilders, as well as commercial builders,” Hayes said. “We do have a good reputation, but still they're coming out of the woodwork.”

It could be self-serving, but Hayes lays some of the blame on homebuilders' reluctance to increase their subcontractors' pay. He'll make about $3,000 today for a job that might have paid $5,000 in the mid-2000s.

“Consequently, they're having trouble finding good labor, because they don't pay enough,” Hayes said.

Carpentry crew foreman Joe Crespo said his company fell behind a couple months ago by trying to finish six homes with 12 or 13 people, too few for the job at hand. Crespo's company, Carpenter Contractors of America, stuck a help-wanted sign in the ground at the entrance to a subdivision in Riverview's giant Panther Trace community.

The same phenomenon is happening around the country and is spurring builder trade groups to target foreign workers through immigration reform. The Senate's immigration bill allows for up to 200,000 unskilled laborer visas, but specifies that only 15,000 may be from the construction sector, because some in Congress fear foreigners will take jobs that Americans are willing to take.

Associated Builders and Contractors has been lobbying to eliminate that cap on the construction industry, which isn't nearly enough to meet market demand, said ABC lobbyist Geoff Burr. U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, is preparing a new guest worker bill that hopefully won't limit construction workers, he said. An aide to the Congressman would only say that Labrador and a colleague are ironing out the details of a potential guest worker program.

Some construction workers and subcontractors claim the real problem is with low pay, not an unwilling workforce. But Burr said he talks to commercial builders who pay $30 an hour and still can't find workers. “Can these people pass a drug test? Can the people pass a criminal background test?” Burr said. “My members tell me they bring in willing workers, but they unfortunately fail one of those.”

Trade groups in Florida say the labor shortage will get worse in the next few years, because the pipeline of talent has dried up. In good times, construction firms put young workers through apprenticeship programs that take a few years but yield expert block masons, said Pat McLaughlin of the Masonry Association of Florida. No one went through those programs in 2008, 2009 and 2010, “and now we're paying the price for it,” McLaughlin said.

Certain segments of Florida construction already are heavily dependent on foreign labor, whether they're here on permanent visas or undocumented. Many of them have returned to Latin America or better construction markets in the Carolinas and Texas, industry officials say.

Some in Florida building now say allowing in more foreign labor on temporary visas is necessary, even if they have misgivings about it.

Boles, the Associated General Contractors official, said his group wants as many temporary construction visas as possible, but only if the government is going to let them in anyway. On a personal basis, though, he wishes the focus would be on domestic workers.

“We want the guys here to go to work first,” Boles said.

 

msasso@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7865

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