By Alex Veiga
AP Real Estate Writer
U.S. builders and the subcontractors they depend on are struggling to hire fast enough to meet rising demand for new homes. Builders would be starting work on more homes — and contributing more to the economy — if they could fill more job openings.
In the meantime, workers in the right locations with the right skills are commanding higher pay.
The shortage of labor ranges across occupations — from construction superintendents and purchasing agents to painters, cabinet makers and drywall installers. The National Association of Home Builders says its members have complained of too few framers, roofers, plumbers and carpenters. The shortage is most acute in areas where demand for new homes has recovered fastest, notably in Arizona, California, Texas, Colorado and Florida.
The problem results largely from an exodus of workers from the industry after the housing bubble burst. Experienced construction workers lost jobs. And many found new work — in commercial building or in booming and sometimes higher-paying industries like mining and natural gas drilling — and aren’t eager to come back.
Hispanic immigrants, largely from Mexico, who had filled jobs during the boom were among those who left the industry and, in some cases, the United States.
A shortage of labor in a well-paying industry might seem incongruous in an economy stuck with a still-high 7.5 percent unemployment rate. But it reflects just how many former skilled construction workers have moved on to other fields.
In 2006, when the boom peaked, 3.4 million people worked in homebuilding. By 2011, the figure had bottomed at about 2 million. As of last month, about 2.1 million people were employed in residential construction.
Jobs in the industry did rise 4.1 percent in April from a year earlier, faster than overall U.S. job growth. But they’d have to surge 24 percent more to reach 2.6 million, their 2002 level — “the last time the market was normal,” says David Crowe, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders.
For now, the industry is building faster than it’s hiring. In the 12 months that ended in March, housing starts surged 47 percent. Yet over the same period, the industry’s employment grew just 3.7 percent.