Deconstructing Immigration

Slowing Legal Immigrations Exacerbates Worker Shortage

According to the American Community Survey (ACS), in 2019, just before a global pandemic rippled through the U.S. economy, the number of immigrant workers in construction approached 2.8 million, the highest number on record. As was the case in 2016, the data indicated that immigrant workers accounted for approximately 24% of construction workers that year.

But that headline statistic is arguably misleading, since the overall construction industry includes many who deliver no construction services, including bookkeepers and estimators. If one relegates one's inquiry to the construction trades, the immigrant share rises to 30%. While Texas and California differ in multiple ways, there is at least one thing they have in common — immigrants represent nearly 40% of their respective construction workforces. In New Jersey, the corresponding proportion is 37%. In Nevada, New York, and Florida, one out of three construction workers arrived from abroad. Foreign-born workers in construction are also of disproportionate import in Maryland and Connecticut.

Once again, broadly defined statistics can be misleading. Many immigrants live in urban areas, and therefore their impact on construction activity is even greater there. For instance, a recent report from the Center of Migration Studies indicates that although immigrants comprised 37% of New York City’s total population between 2015 and 2019, they made up nearly two-thirds (63%) of the city’s construction workers.

In certain occupational categories, immigrants represent a much higher share than that. According to 2019 ACS figures, the immigrant share of drywall installers was 53%, among painters, 46%, and among roofers, 44%. Immigrants are also highly represented in the categories of cement masons (39%) and construction laborers (38%).

Data suggest that there are plenty of children of immigrants who have entered the construction trades over the course of decades. With respect to the overall construction industry, 32.6% of workers were characterized as Hispanic or Latino according to data supplied by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In other words, immigration today can translate into more construction workers now and into the future.

But that also means that when immigration slows, it can impact worker availability over the course of generations.  Data from the Census Bureau indicate that in 2021, the U.S. registered a net gain of 244,000 new residents from immigration. As indicated by The New York Times, that's a far cry from the middle of the previous decade when the bureau routinely attributed annual gains or more to immigration.

There's more. The immigrant population is aging. About 1 in 5 Americans between the ages of 40 and 64 was born overseas. About two-thirds of foreign-born residents have been in the nation for more than a decade according to census data. As pointed out by Times writers Miriam Jordan and Robert Gebeloff, that's a reflection of the enormous levels of immigration that characterized the 1970s and 1980s.

While it can be said that immigrants have been enormously important to U.S. construction, it can as easily be contended that construction has been of great import to immigrants. According to data compiled by the Migration Policy Institute, of the 27.5 million employed foreign-born workers in 2019, nearly 10% (2.7 million) were employed in construction. Among those born in America, the corresponding proportion is in the range of 6.3%.

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About the Author

Anirban Basu

Anirban Basu is Chairman & CEO of Sage Policy Group, Inc., an economic and policy consulting firm in Baltimore, MD. He is one of the Mid-Atlantic region’s most recognizable economists in part because of his consulting work on behalf of such clients as prominent developers, bankers, brokerage houses, energy suppliers, and law firms.

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