No end in sight for North Texas’ homebuilding labor shortage

Ask a homebuilder to name the industry’s biggest concerns, and the lack of labor is near the top of their list.

Unfortunately for the housing industry, the shortage of workers is not something that’s easy to fix.

Studies suggest it may be impossible to lure enough young Americans into the construction trades to meet ongoing demand. And tougher immigration policies mean there will be fewer foreign workers on construction job sites.

In North Texas, the labor pinch is even worse. Dallas-Fort Worth leads the country in residential building, with more than 50,000 apartments and about 30,000 single-family homes under construction.

Builders could do even more if not for the unprecedented labor shortages.

"In our estimation, it is 18,000 to 20,000" workers needed in the area, said Phil Crone, head of the Dallas Builders Association.

Good luck finding them. North Texas is almost at full employment, and there aren’t enough skilled workers to fill jobs in many sectors.

The shortfall in the homebuilding industry goes back more than a decade.

During the Great Recession, dozens of local builders shut down and laid off workers. When the housing market came back, the labor didn’t.

Finding labor has become a full-time job for some subcontractors, who must be on their toes to keep competitors from stealing their workers.

The shortage of labor and land has held back home construction all across the U.S.

"We have not recovered in terms of production of new homes in this country," said Doug Yearley, CEO of top-10 builder Toll Brothers. "Going back to the 1970s, this country produced 1.5 million new homes every year.

"We went from producing 1.5 million houses a year to 500,000" during the recession, Yearley said. "It hasn’t come close to approaching the 1.5 million starts a year."

In the D-FW area, single-family home starts are still about 40 percent below 2005 and 2006 levels — before the crash killed buyer demand.

The buyers came back. But a lot of the folks building houses haven’t.

"We have a tough labor market, and it’s going to get worse," says Colorado builder Gene Myers.

Myers, whom I visited with last week at a conference in Denver, said the housing industry has done a poor job of keeping up with employment innovation and is lagging in worker production. He said tighter immigration policies are adding to the strain.

"Disruption is possibly on our doorstep in the industry," Myers said. "This kind of moribund industry is ripe for disruption."

Myers says a lot of the vacant building jobs are positions Americans don’t want.

A recent industry study found that a majority of young Americans would not take construction jobs even if they paid six figures or more. They basically said they didn’t want to work that hard.

The National Association of Home Builders estimates that the industry in the U.S. is short almost 1 million workers.

And with the average age of many skilled laborers — plumbers, electricians, masons and the like — in their late 50s, housing will see even more people leave the business in the years ahead.

By some measures, 20 percent of the current residential building workers plan to retire in the next decade, taking away another 900,000 jobs.

Those are jobs that will be increasingly hard to fill in hot real estate markets like North Texas.

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