Congress is expected to once again try and tackle the issue of immigration reform in 2014 and the construction industry will be keeping an eye on its progress. The Senate finally passed S.744 Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act last June and the House introduced H.R. 15 Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act last October and is currently sitting in Committee. It’s unlikely the House bill will make it out of Committee and even more unlikely that it will get passed.
Even if the House bill were to pass and then get reconciled with the Senate bill in a Conference Committee it would have little impact on skilled worker shortages currently facing the construction industry. One of the biggest items in the proposed legislation is allowing the 11.7 million undocumented people in this country to receive Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status which would allow them to legally work. In addition to allowing undocumented workers to gain legal status the proposed reform would also seek to eliminate the unethical practice of hiring undocumented workers and paying them under the table, often at rates much lower than legal workers. Employers would have to use an electronic verification system as well as withhold payroll taxes, pay competitive wages and provide other protection to workers with penalties with employers who don’t comply.
The main problem with both immigration reform bills is cap on the number of guest worker visas allowed for the construction industry. For the construction industry these “W visas” will be capped at 15,000 per year with no more than 7,500 for any six month period. No other industry has an arbitrary cap set like the construction industry. Also in order to be applicable for a guest worker visa the employer would be required to recruit U.S. workers first, attest that working conditions for U.S. workers will not be affected and that no U.S. worker that applied for the job was qualified to do the work. These guest worker visas would also not be available if unemployment for construction in the metropolitan statistical area was above 8.5 percent.
According to one report the construction industry will face a skilled worker shortage of 2 million by 2017. If the bill were enacted and the full allotment of 15,000 visas were issued each year for the construction industry that would only add a grand total 45,000 construction workers. That only leaves a shortage of 1,955,000 workers in the industry. Even if the limit was increased to 200,000 “W visas” a year starting in 2015 there would still be a deficit of 1.4 million workers by 2017. (The total cap could reach 200,000 after the program’s fifth year but the construction industry will still only be limited to a maximum of 15,000 of those visas.) Clearly immigration reform in its current proposed state will not be the sole answer to the skilled worker shortage facing the construction industry.
One thing the construction industry as a whole could do is to petition Congress to change their position and allow labor market demands dictate what the visa cap should be for construction or do away with a cap altogether. Another approach would be to reach out to the undocumented people who are granted RPI designation. Granted not all 11.7 million currently in the country will be eligible and a large number are already working in the construction industry illegally and will probably continue to do so once they are granted legal status. Employers should focus on those that are either currently unemployed or working in other industries illegally. The construction industry also needs to do a better job of reaching out to and attracting more women, minorities and veterans to careers in construction. Employers also need to look at recruiting early at the middle school and high school levels to get young people interested in a possible career in the construction industry.
The current proposed legislation would at best give legal status to undocumented workers already in the construction industry which isn’t adding any workers it’s just changing their status form illegal to legal. The guest worker visa program at best would add 45,000 workers over three years but that number would be probably be much lower since the total cap for the first year is 20,000, 35,000 in the second and 55,000 in the third of which the construction industry would have to compete with all other industries and would still be capped at 15,000. Again there is no guarantee that any of the proposed legislation on immigration reform will be passed. Even if by some miracle there is legislation passed this year it won’t be the magic-bullet solution to the skilled worker shortage in the construction industry.