Residential construction: 40% of workers are immigrants

Any serious reduction of inflow of foreign born workers into residential construction, including unauthorized workers, constrains building.

The residential construction industry in some key states such as California, Florida, New Jersey, New York and Texas depend on foreign-born workers—over 40% of these workers are foreign born. In the 2010s, close to 40% of the national increase of workers from the most recession bottom were foreign born workers.

The growth of the foreign born residential construction workforce as recently slowed down.

According to the most recent 2021 American Community Survey (ACS), the number of immigrant workers in construction, including self-employed, remained close to 2.8 million, or 24% of the construction workforce. In the trades (such a masonry, carpentry) the share of immigrants was 30%. But the annual flow of new immigrant workers into construction slowed to the lowest levels since 2012 despite ongoing skilled labor shortages exacerbated by a pandemic boost to housing demand.

In the first half of the 2000s, the annual inflow of new foreign born workers was over 100,000, reflecting the surge of unauthorized Mexican and Central American migrants. This inflow accounted for one tenth of the entire new increase in the U.S. labor force during these years.  This inflow collapsed during the housing downturn of the late 2000s, then rose again in the 2010s, only to decline again.

“These [immigrant] workers are not substitutable,” said Michael Clemens, an economics professor at George Mason University. Clemens has studied the effect of immigrant labor in the workforce, and his findings refute the argument that immigrants take jobs that would otherwise be filled by U.S.-born workers. “Even when employers find a few [U.S.-born workers] to fill these jobs, they find there’s extremely high turnover in them,” Clemens said. Immigrants, Clemens said, offer the kind of labor supply that employers in construction need to plan business activity medium- to long-term.

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