What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Houston needs rebuilding after Hurricane Harvey, but are there enough workers to do it?

More than 30,000 homes were flooded after Hurricane Harvey tore through Houston earlier this year. Now, with residents working to rebuild their city, a lack of construction workers may hinder the process. And with the risk of deportation looming, many qualified, yet undocumented, workers may be steering clear. Houston Public Media’s correspondent Tomeka Weatherspoon reports.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Tomeka Weatherspoon:

    You can hardly go anywhere in Houston without seeing construction. Experts say somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 homes were damaged or destroyed after Hurricane Harvey, but there are not enough new construction workers to rebuild all these homes. According to a recent survey, 74 percent of Texas contractors are having a hard time filling hourly craft positions such as dry wall installers, carpenters and electricians.

    The construction industry has long filled jobs with undocumented workers. The Pew Research Center estimated nearly 28 percent of the state's construction workforce is undocumented. Fear of deportation may be keeping them away.

  • Man:

    Really what this business is about is managing people.

  • Tomeka Weatherspoon:

    These Houston area high schoolers are in a special program hoping to get ready for a career in the industry fast.

  • Man:

    The good thing about this industry is, it's easy to get into if you want to work hard, you want to work outside.

  • Tomeka Weatherspoon:

    The students spent part of their school day shadowing construction workers. Their teacher is Zubair Ulhaq of Jones Futures Academy says that many of his students are personally invested.

  • Zubair Ulhaq:

    The majority of the students' parents are in the construction industry. Some of these students, by their sophomore or junior years, are on construction sites with their parents.

  • Tomeka Weatherspoon:

    And if they weren't already motivated by family ties —

  • Zubair Ulhaq:

    We had severe impact by Harvey. I particularly have three students that have lost homes. I feel that there is more drive from these particular students because they want to better their conditions.

  • Tomeka Weatherspoon:

    But determination alone is not enough to solve Houston's construction labor shortage.

  • Chuck Gremillion:

    They have an unsustainable craft workforce. There's more people leaving the industry than joining it.

  • Tomeka Weatherspoon:

    Chuck Gremillion of the Construction Career Collaborative is trying to get more people trained. He says Hurricane Harvey has made a troubling workforce situation even worse.

  • Chuck Gremillion:

    All this new reconstruction of homes that had been damaged by the flood and businesses that had been damaged by the flood, we were already working at full employment capacity to begin with. There's essentially no one to go do that work.

  • Tomeka Weatherspoon:

    He says, historically, the construction industry relied on unions to train and develop a workforce.

  • Chuck Gremillion:

    Houston back in the late '70s or early '80s and before was a union town and unions provided all the craft training and the career paths in construction industry. And then you get in to the early '90s, the first company realized, well, I'll treat my employees as independent subcontractors and, when they did that, they cut out benefits, they cut out traditional state and federal employment taxes such as Social Security, and they instantly had a 35 percent labor cost advantage when they were bidding work.

    And, so, today, much of the construction industry, I would say maybe as much as 80 percent of the construction industry, the construction trades in Houston, are non-union or merit job.

  • Tomeka Weatherspoon:

    He says there is no quick fix that will suddenly bring more young people into the labor market, but the steady stream that the industry relies on, passing down trades through the generations, remains.

  • Mario Morales:

    My dad taught me the labor work.

  • Tomeka Weatherspoon:

    Mario Morales got an official push toward this career from family ties.

  • Mario Morales:

    And believe me, he was not easy with me, although he's part of the reason that I'm still in the business.

  • Tomeka Weatherspoon:

    Today with nearly two decades of work under his belt, Mario is now working on a crucial task, generating more workers in the industry.

  • Mario Morales:

    I currently have a brother here. He's 23 years old. I don't cut him no slack either. I trained him a lot, how to read drawings, how to read specs, how to read some metals. Sometimes I can see that he's overwhelmed, but it's for his own good.

  • Tomeka Weatherspoon:

    And good for the city because Houston has a lot of rebuilding to get done.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Tomeka Weatherspoon in Houston.

The Latest