Texas Contractors Struggle with Workforce, As Industry Leaders And AGC Of America Call for Immigration Reform As Part Of Comprehensive Plan

By Jerry Nevlud, President/CEO, AGC Houston

Seventy-eight percent of construction firms in Texas say they are having difficulty finding skilled workers, despite record employment in the industry, according to Ken Simonson, AGC of America Chief Economist, who addressed the media at a press conference sponsored by AGC Houston on August 29, 2018. Simonson, along with Brian Turmail, AGC of America VP-Public Affairs & Strategic Initiatives, led the event at Marek Brothers Systems, Inc., which featured Mike Holland, COO, Marek Brothers Systems, Inc.; Dan Gilbane, Sr. Vice President, Southwest Division, Gilbane Building Company; and Chuck Gremillion, Executive Director, Construction Career Collaborative (C3).  

The press conference served to announce new construction jobs in the area and worker shortage in Houston and in Texas. AGC of America and its partner, Autodesk, surveyed more than 2,500 construction firms during the summer to evaluate the extent and impact of workforce shortages in the industry. The survey found that an overwhelming majority of construction firms are having a hard time finding qualified workers – particularly hourly craft workers – to hire.  One reason so many local firms are worried about finding qualified employees is that they have been working to keep up with the growing demand for construction. 

Houston is among the highest construction markets in the nation and, according to the new analysis of metro area construction figures released, the Houston-Woodlands-Sugar Land metro area added 25,500 new construction jobs between July 2017 and July 2018, a 12 percent increase. Most firms in Texas – 69 percent – report they have increased base pay rates for craft workers because of the difficulty in filling positions. An equal percent of Texas firms report they are increasing their use of labor saving equipment and technology to be able to do more work using fewer workers. 

Simonson also noted that “forty-four percent of Texas firms report that labor shortages are causing projects to take longer than originally scheduled and 26 percent report they have put longer completion times into their bids for new work.” To address these issues, AGC of America has developed a plan that calls for federal funding for technical education and more immigrants with construction skills. The plan identifies steps federal officials should take to support construction workforce development, which include doubling the amount of money it invests in career and technical education over the next five years and passing legislation to allow more people with construction skills to legally enter the country.

“For decades, AGC of America has supported immigration reform that strengthens national security but also addresses workforce needs,” stated Simonson. “The broken immigration system is a prime area to look to address the worker shortage with an estimated 10 million unauthorized individuals in the United States without the ability to lawfully work for employers.  The lack of a legal visa program for construction workers and a recent tightening of legal immigration will worsen worker shortages if not addressed comprehensively,” Additional programs needing changes to increase a potential construction workforce include:

  • Earned path toward legal permanent status for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Temporary Protected Status recipients.
  • Opportunity for earned legal status for otherwise law-abiding undocumented workers.
  • New temporary, market-based, visa program to legally alleviate current and future worker shortages and secure the border.
  • Expansion of the H-2B seasonal visa program to meet the distinct needs of the construction industry.
The bottom line, according to Simonson, is that solving chronic workforce shortages that are plaguing the construction industry will require the active support from all levels of government, trade associations and from construction firms.  

When the Construction Career Collaborative was launched in 2009, its mission was to forge an alliance with Houston Owners, Contractors and Specialty Contractors to collaborate in attracting, training and retaining the craft workforce that will be necessary to build Houston.  Chuck Gremillion spoke about the local building industry’s collaboration to resolve the workforce shortage: “C3 is working with owners of projects to advance the financial security, health and well-being of the construction craft workforce (and) actively implement(s) and support(s) the best construction safety practices. The most unique characteristic of C3 is that it is truly a collaborative effort: it represents merit shops and union shops, general contractors and specialty contractors, architects and building owners, all working together to overcome an industry challenge that impacts them all.”

The Greater Houston Partnership launched its Regional Workforce Development Task Force (RWDTF) in the summer of 2013. The task force represents large employers, workforce and economic development, education, and social services. The initiative also launched UpSkillHouston.org, a comprehensive tool to help change perceptions and improve awareness about middle-skill careers across the region. The website provides information on numerous middle-skill jobs, training and educational requirements, salary ranges, and career pathways. Several AGC Houston members have played significant roles including Dan Gilbane who currently serves on Greater Houston Partnership’s board of directors of the and chairs  UpSkill Houston’s Executive Committee. Mike Holland is co-chair of UpSkill Houston’s Construction Sector Council, and has served on the committee since its inception four years ago, while Laura Bellows, W.S. Bellows Construction Corp., and Steve Mechler, TI Constructors, are former co-chairs of the Construction Sector Council.

“We have to treat workforce development as an investment—an investment in people that will benefit our companies and an investment that will ensure the long-term competitiveness of our companies and our region,” stated Gilbane. “In today’s ever-changing economy, I think it is important to acknowledge that many career paths that don’t require a four-year college degree won’t end someone’s educational journey but may actually complement it.”

As construction firms continue to expand their recruitment and safety training programs, AGC chapters such as AGC Houston are focused on collaborating with trade groups, associations and government entities to resolve the workforce crisis. Holland underscored the importance of attracting and growing a diverse workforce. “In our role as a member of the industry and communities we serve, Marek seeks to work closely with game-changers and coalition-builders that bring different expertise to the table and are making a positive impact on the workforce landscape.  We are involved with several outstanding initiatives including two, C3 and UpSkill Houston. Our diversity encompasses gender, with females now squarely in the focus as well as all nationalities represented in Houston.”

 “If we want to sustain the economic growth in Houston and opportunities that economic growth provides, we must be better at connecting people with jobs and jobs with people,” Gilbane stated.

AGC of America's Workforce Plan Supports The Workforce Innovation & Opportunity Act

  • Since AGC of America introduced the workforce plan, several key victories have been achieved, including getting Congress and the president to enact a new federal career and technical education bill that boosts funding and increases flexibility to make it easier for education officials to set up construction-focused high school programs.
  • AGC of America also has helped to secure needed reforms for federal job training programs via the Workforce Innovation & Opportunity Act and has been instrumental in getting the Trump administration focused on the need to enhance apprenticeship training opportunities.
  • AGC of America has asked that funding be increased for the program which targets adults who lake the needed skill sets for today’s economy. This would realize the full potential of the 2014 law’s improvements and incentives for employers to engage collaborate with educators and others to provide career training.

Increasing Distribution of “Build Your Future” Materials

As part of AGC’s ongoing partnership with, and support for, NCCER’s Build Your Future campaign, Build Your Future materials will be distributed to 88 chapters and 27,000 member firms resources such as “trading cards” that contain information about pay ranges for construction crafts, and parent resources.  

Pictured from left are Luis Montalvo, Marek Brothers Systems, Inc.; Mike Holland, COO Marek Brothers Systems, Inc.; Chuck Gremillion, Construction Career Collaborative; Dan Gilbane, Gilbane Building Co.; Ivan Arguello, Scott Vlasek, and Hector Gonzalez, Marek Brothers Systems, Inc.; Peter Beard, Regional Workforce Development at the Greater Houston Partnership; Jerry Nevlud, AGC Houston; and Brian Turmail, AGC of America.