Austin experiencing labor shortage amid booming housing market

Homes in the Mueller development under construction (KXAN Photo/Kylie McGivern)
Homes in the Mueller development under construction (KXAN Photo/Kylie McGivern)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A factor impacting housing affordability in Central Texas is the cost to build, and with that, the cost to pay for the work as Austin grapples with a labor shortage.

The Home Builders Association of Greater Texas says simply put there just aren’t enough workers to meet the demand.

“It’s a popular industry but it’s also an industry that is slowly getting toward retirement. The average age of the construction industry worker or trades labor is 50s,” Emily Blair, with the association, said.

It’s a problem of a workforce aging out and not enough new blood coming in. “We have difficulty getting enough housing on the ground to begin with. There’s so much demand in this market for new homes and just housing in general,” Blair said.

The demand is so high, the Home Builders Association of Greater Texas says it’s heard of workers walking off the job sites for better offers.

“They’re competing for the pool of labor, for sure,” Blair said of builders.

The shortage impacts construction timelines, Blair telling KXAN, “You can talk with any construction manager who’s managing the project timeline for all of the homes that they have going and they can definitely tell you that the time from start to finish is longer than it used to be.”

This can then trickle down to the buyers, upping home prices. “That’s all part of the affordability equation because time equals money,” Blair said.

The association says it’s working with Texas State University and others  to try and maximize construction programs and build up the workforce.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows construction workers were paid $50,806 in 2015, up 19 percent from 2010. Texas saw the third highest residential construction wage growth, 33 percent from 2010-2015, behind only North Dakota and Georgia.

Still, the Workers Defense Project knows another piece of the labor shortage is the inability for many in the industry to live and sustain themselves in Austin.

“It’s really difficult to be a construction worker, it’s hard work but it’s also work where we often don’t see a career path for construction workers,” Workers Defense Project Communications Director Sam Robles said, in terms of longevity and something to show for years of hard work. “It says a lot when the men and women who are building these new homes and condos can’t afford to buy one — and much less afford to live in the city that they’re building.”

Many home builders and construction companies fear the crackdown on illegal immigration could make it even more difficult to find workers. The Workers Defense Project says it’s seen workers not show up and even leave Texas all together.

“Right now, while there are many immigrant families that are standing up against SB4, there are also many families that are afraid of what could happen under this new law,” Robles said.

In 2013, the Workers Defense Project and the University of Texas surveyed 1,200 workers on local construction sites and found half were undocumented. A 2014 report found Texas is home to 1.7 million undocumented immigrants and 24 percent worked in construction. Those same workers contributed about $85 billion towards the state’s economy.

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