"I can't find qualified people to fill the positions that I have open," says Vishaal Gupta, president of Park Square Homes in Orlando, Fla. If not for the labor shortage, "I would be able to build more homes this year and meet more demand than I can handle today."
Gupta's company is facing a side effect of the labor shortage: Demand for higher pay from qualified workers. On some occasions, he says he's been outbid by rivals that need contractors for their own projects. Gupta's preferred paint contractor left for a rival that paid more. His new cabinet contractor is about 10 percent more expensive than the one Gupta used before.
The higher pay they're handing out helps explain why builders have been gradually raising prices on new homes. The median price was $247,000 in March, up about 12 percent from the same month in 2011, the Commerce Department says.
The industry may have to look more aggressively for workers at vocational schools, federally funded programs like Job Corps and elsewhere, says Crowe of the homebuilders group.
"We'll have to recruit more," he says.
Vap, owner of South Valley Drywall, rode out the downturn after the housing crash in part by relying on commercial construction projects. He cut his residential construction staff from 244 in 2006 to 80 in 2009.
This year, Vap has hired 15 field employees for residential construction and says he needs to hire 35 more to do the work he foresees in 2013.
During the 2005-2006 housing boom years, Gupta had to bring in workers from Texas because there weren't enough employees in Florida to keep up with construction. He doubts many of those veterans will return.
"A lot of people who are from other states or from Mexico are not willing to come back here as fast as they did last time because of what they experienced," Gupta says.
Between 2005 and 2010, 1.4 million Mexicans moved from the United States to Mexico — roughly twice as many as in the previous five-year period, according to the Pew Research Center. Though an estimated 11 million people remain in the United States illegally, the influx of illegal immigration from Mexico has essentially stopped, says Douglas Massey, a professor of sociology at Princeton University.
"The Mexican economy is doing quite well, with strong growth in manufacturing and both skilled and unskilled services," Massey notes. "If construction demand picks up, we may see an uptick in Mexican immigration, but I think the boom years are likely over."
Crowe and other economists predict that as demand for new homes strengthens further, higher wages will woo back many laborers who took up other jobs during the downturn.
The homebuilders association is pushing Congress to let more immigrants enter the country through a worker visa program. The association cites census data showing that foreign-born workers make up about 22 percent of the U.S. home construction work force. It estimates there are 116,000 unfilled jobs.
Still, even if builders find more workers to hire, two other factors could hold back the industry for a while: A tight supply of building materials and ready-to-build land. Surveys by the National Association of Home Builders show that builders have grown concerned about those obstacles.
In part, that's why Crowe thinks employment in single-family home building won't return to its 2002 total until 2016. And he isn't unhappy about that.
"In a perverse sort of way, the mild housing recovery is probably a good thing," Crowe says. "We need to rebuild the infrastructure of the industry."
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