In a mid-January speech, Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen said the US economy was near “maximum employment”. Some three weeks later on February 3, the US Department of Labor reported that 227,000 new jobs had been added to payrolls the previous month – more than the 175,000 jobs that economists had predicted.
Maximum or full employment is a normal cyclical event, one embraced by workers and noted by manufacturers and companies, so as the US approaches yet another period of tight employment, it ordinarily would not be worth more than a footnote. This time, it is different.
For several years, manufacturers and housebuilders have been concerned about the scarcity of skilled construction and factory workers, and the problem is now reaching a head. According to a new survey by the Associated General Contractors of America, 73% of contractors are having trouble filling positions as openings reach a 17-year high. The US Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation blames demographics for the shortage, since about 10,000 baby boomers retire each day, while millennials have shown a distinct lack of interest in industrial careers.
The anti-immigration policies of President Donald Trump, meanwhile, threaten to turn what is merely a tight labour market now into a serious shortage of skilled industrial workers. According to Department of Labor Statistics figures from 2015 (the latest available), there were 26.3 million foreign-born persons in the US labour force, or 16.7% of the total. These foreign-born workers were more likely than native-born workers to be employed in construction, production, transportation and material moving occupations. Another 2015 figure from the US National Association of Home Builders shows that foreign-born workers account for nearly 30% of all those employed in construction trades, with nearly 53% of immigrant construction workers born in Mexico.
The trend also applies to highly skilled professionals, as a university study found that the ratio of foreign-born to US-born scientists and engineers doubled between 1994 and 2006.
Despite the odds, hiring companies do what they can to attract talent. “Contractors have the ‘help wanted’ signs out and are offering good pay and benefits,” said Associated General Contractors CEO Stephen E. Sandherr. “We need government at all levels to revitalise and better fund programmes to educate and train the next generation of construction craft workers.”