By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON, June 19 Where have all the
carpenters gone? Home builders across the United States are
scratching their heads for an answer as they struggle to
assemble crews to keep up with growing demand.
In some parts of the country, the shortage of skilled
carpenters - especially framers - is so bad that builders cannot
get projects off the ground and it is taking as much as two
months longer than normal to complete a project.
"Right now I have framing material sitting on the job site
with the foundation on the ground," said Stephen Paul, executive
vice president at Mid-Atlantic Builders in Rockville, Maryland.
"It's been sitting there a week because I have not been able to
get a framer to start the house."
According to a National Association of Home Builders survey
published last month, 48 percent of single-family home builders
could not find framing crews in the first three months of this
year, and builders in all four regions struggled. In the middle
of last year, that figure stood at just 30 percent.
The demand for labor has been driven by the decisive
recovery the housing sector is finally mounting.
According to industry figures released on Monday, a majority
of U.S. homebuilders view conditions for new construction as
favorable for the first time since the housing crisis began
seven years ago, and home prices have been climbing.
To be sure, it's hard to explain a labor shortage when
unemployment in the sector is over 10 percent, and some argue
that builders just need to pay more.
Still, a labor shortage and pricey materials may hold back
new home construction and help push prices higher as demand
outstrips supply, realtors and economists say.
Government data on Tuesday showed housing starts rose less
than expected in May, an indication that supply constraints
might be starting to impact on home building. Builders say costs
have risen between 10 percent and 15 percent over the last year.
Although the nation's unemployment rate stands at a lofty
7.6 percent, and is much higher in construction, builders say
that is not translating into the availability of framers - the
carpenters with mid-level skills who create the skeletal wooden
framework of new houses and who serve as the backbone of home
And it is not only framers who are in short supply,
according to builders. The dearth extends to roofers, masons,
sheet rockers, electricians and air conditioning technicians,
and it is affecting apartment building contractors as well as
"Although we are very busy and have work lined up for the
next 12 to 18 months, we could be busier if I was confident that
I could obtain the proper help," said Anthony Zarrilli,
principal at Zarrilli Homes in Brick, New Jersey.
When the housing market collapsed in 2006, contractors
downsized and the industry continued to shrink well after the
2007-09 recession ended. Between April 2006 and January 2011,
the home-building sector shed 466,700 jobs, about half of its
NOT GOING BACK
Now, builders are trying to meet the recovering demand, but
many of the workers they let go are no longer available.
Given the industry's volatility, many, like Omar Lisak, will
probably never come back.
The 46-year-old from Lincoln, Nebraska, left in May 2008
after an 18-year career as a framer. He is now a truck driver.
"I need something less risky. People are offering me jobs,
they want me to go back, but I won't," said Lisak. "I have no
need to. I am working with no stress, less headaches and I sleep
well at night and don't have to worry about paying my bills."
Similar sentiments are shared by Fernando Pages and Pat
Quinn, who also quit after decades of building homes.
Pages, 57, has moved into telecommunications and also
teaches home-building classes and writes a blog.
"It was a terrible experience to want to go through again.
Right now I am driving to Kansas, where I will teach an
eight-hour class tomorrow on foundations," said Pages.
After frequent bouts of unemployment, the 57-year-old Quinn
called it quits in 2012 and became a home inspector in St.
Augustine, Florida, ending a 30-year career building homes.
"I was always getting laid off every year," said Quinn. "I
would never consider going back even if things get much better
in the housing market."
A tightening of immigration rules in states like Arizona is
also cited as a factor behind the labor shortage. With police in
the state required to check the immigration status of people
they stop and suspect of being in the country illegally, many
undocumented immigrants left the state, drying up a source of
labor for the building industry there.
According to the NAHB about 22 percent of the workforce in
the single-family home building industry are immigrants, though
it does not say how many of those are undocumented.
Another factor, according to unions and former framers like
Lisak, is the reluctance by builders to pay contractors more.
"Our contractors are underbid," said Bill Luddy, head of
special projects at the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. "Our
people provide a wage that people can live on, compared to
contractors who are paying piece rates, who are paying low or
Builders would not be drawn into discussing financial
issues. However, Lisak, said they generally paid framers between
$4-$5 per square foot, depending on the region and the size of
the house. That translated to wages of less than $1,000 per
week, he said.
They would need to pay at least $6 per square foot to
attract people like him, Lisak added.
LABOR GETTING SCARCE
"Labor is getting very scarce. We have actually turned a few
jobs away because labor is unavailable," said Johnny Yates, vice
president at Rampart Construction in Dallas.
Yates said an apartment building job that would normally run
between 18 to 24 months was now taking at least an additional
two months to complete.
In Oklahoma, urban developer Grant Humphreys is also having
labor headaches for his new community project, Carlton Landing.
"I have 27 homes that have not yet started construction,"
said Humphreys. "Our people are working six days a week. We
can't ask more from them. We just need more workers."
Humphreys said his firm would not break ground until year
end on projects for which the contracts were signed in May.
Seven years ago, as the housing boom reached its apex,
residential construction payrolls peaked at 1.02 million
workers. While they bottomed out in January 2011, they are still
down about 42 percent.
At 10.8 percent, unemployment among construction workers is
higher than for any other group. But this rate includes workers
in non-residential construction, which has lagged home building
and where workers are more likely to be unionized.
Some economists like Heidi Shierholz of the left-leaning
Economic Policy Institute doubt talk of a labor shortage given
the slack in the overall industry. "Unemployed construction
workers outnumber job openings in construction by nearly
12-to-1," said Shierholz.
Part of the seeming discrepancy could reflect the uneven
nature of the housing recovery, other economists say. Housing
has not rebounded as quickly in areas like Michigan and the rest
of the Rust Belt as in places like Arizona, California and much
of the Northeast.
Labor Department data on wages seems to indicate some
tightening in labor availability.
Average weekly earnings in the home-building sector,
unadjusted for seasonal fluctuations, jumped by $12.56 to
$872.14 in April, the highest level since the series started in
2006. In the 12 months through April, they were up 6.1 percent.
"You still have quite a bit of displaced workers that are
unemployed in construction because their area hasn't turned
around just yet and they are not willing to move to where the
jobs are," said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist at Hanley Wood