Finding a contractor will be tough for Harvey and Irma victims

2017 hurricanes could cost over $200 billion
2017 hurricanes could cost over $200 billion

There's a tremendous shortage of construction workers throughout the U.S., and that's going to make things tough for hurricanes victims who want to rebuild.

"There's already a shortage of skilled workers, and Harvey and Irma won't make it any better," said Bill Varian. He's a contractor in Naples, Florida, one of the places where the eye of Irma came ashore, and he was struggling to find workers even before the hurricane. Instead of using his own employees, he's had to rely on subcontractors and temporary workers.

"I had 13 workers on payroll when Hurricane Wilma hit in 2005. I have only three now," Varian said. That's going to make it a lot harder for anyone with a damaged home to book him to make repairs.

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"We're a three and half weeks removed from the storm, and it's still going to be a week before I can get out to look at some of the damage," said Varian. "Our phone has been ringing pretty steadily, but we're a good six months out from being able to do some of the work."

The industry first lost a lot of skilled workers when the housing bubble burst a decade ago. As building jobs dried up, many workers moved on to other industries. Government figures show that about 900,000 construction workers left the field in the ten years following the high point of the building boom in 2006. That's roughly 22% of the construction work force.

The top concern for home builders is the shortage of workers, said Jerry Howard, the executive director of the National Association of Home Builders. "Every month there are literally 100,000 jobs in construction that are advertised and vacant. We just don't have the bodies."

Even as the housing market has recovered, the number of people willing to work construction has continued to drop. Part of the reason for that is that it's an aging workforce. Many skilled workers are hitting retirement age, and fewer young workers are willing to join the field.

Another part of the problem is how much the industry depends on foreign born workers.

Nearly a third of the sector's work force is foreign born, giving it one of the highest concentrations of immigrant labor of any U.S. industry. Many foreign born workers went back to their home countries after the housing bust, Howard said. Government figures show there are 275,000 fewer immigrant construction workers today than there were 10 years ago.

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Getting those workers with those skills to come back to the U.S. will be difficult in the current immigration environment, according to Howard.

"Until our immigration policies are solidified, a lot of people who want to move to the country are not willing to uproot their families and come here," Howard said.

Howard said while the percentage of foreign born construction workers nationwide may be about 30%, it's higher in states like Texas and Florida. And the overwhelming majority of workers in parts of the business that are particularly critical to storm recovery are foreign born, said Howard. They include demolition and clean-up, framing and drywall.

And the tighter immigration policies that the Trump administration has in the works could make it more difficult to find the construction workers that Houston and Florida homeowners need right now.

Contractors are ramping up work with the help they already have, but they say there are limits to what they can do.

"We were already working 55 to 60 hours a week," said Varian. "The week after the storm we worked 72 hours, taking care of emergencies and our own properties. Believe me my guys were dragging by the end of that week. How much more can I push them?"

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