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It’s a great time to be a construction worker

For most people, anyway.

On a conference call earlier this month, the president of Houston-based developer Camden Property Trust described what it’s like building apartments in markets where construction is booming and skilled workers are in short supply.

“It’s a catfight to get subcontractors to fully staff at your jobs,” said D. Keith Oden. He added, “It’s hand-to-hand combat.”

The labor shortage has become so severe that the company recently started putting guards on job sites to keep its workers from being poached by competitors willing to pay more.

“We’ve had specific instances where people would come on site and try to round up workers,” Camden’s chief executive Ric Campo said in an interview. “During the World Cup, we actually put big screens on our sites to get people to stay.”

[...]

[Pat] Kiley, principal of Kiley Advisors said licensed trades are in high demand: “electrical, mechanical, plumbers, sheet metal workers, iron workers, operating engineers, certified crane operators. These are all crafts in short supply,” he said.

Labor unions are recruiting workers.

“You’re getting people moving here from out of state like they did in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s,” Kiley said. “The unions have brought in people.”

Ed Vargocko, business manager of the Iron Workers Local 84, said the amount of construction taking place in the Houston area is attracting workers from other parts of the country where development remains slow.

“A lot of them come from California and quite a few from Detroit,” he said.

In some cases, the shortage is evident in higher wages.

Between the first quarter of 2010 and the first quarter of 2014, the average weekly wage in the local construction industry rose 24.5 percent, Jankowski said, citing the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages. That’s higher than the 19.9 percent boost in the overall average weekly wage here over the same period.

The wage and benefit package for millwrights will increase by 4 percent for each of the next few years, Donahou said.

“It’s a strong market out there,” he said. “Everybody’s going after the same people.”

Still, a segment of the construction worker population, mostly immigrants, is underpaid and facing other problems.

A report on the challenges facing the construction industry in Texas, released last year by the Workers Defense Project and the University of Texas, found that the state’s construction industry is characterized “by dangerous working conditions, low wages, and legal violations that hurt working families and undercut honest businesses.”

The report cited a widespread practice of payroll fraud, where more than 40 percent of construction employees were misclassified as independent subcontractors.

In such cases, employers avoid paying payroll and unemployment taxes and workers are deprived of overtime and other employment benefits.

That gives an unfair cost advantage to companies that don’t abide by employment rules, said construction veteran Stan Marek, CEO of the Marek Family of Companies.

The report cited is here. It’s yet another reason why comprehensive immigration reform is so desperately needed, and another reason why I cannot fathom how business interests can say with a straight face that they support CIR while continuing to support the politicians that oppose it. But in a state where employers can legally lie to their employees, I suppose such duplicity isn’t that surprising. Anyway, it sure would be nice if this kind of leverage for workers made its way to other industries as well. After decades of stagnant wages, we could all use it.

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