Bill Caton, chief operating officer of the Alabama AGC—a non-residential construction association of more than 800 contractors, construction managers, and suppliers—says the state’s anti-immigration policies have created major problems for his industry—one that has a $10 billion annual economic impact on the state. “Until the state passed laws that made it almost impossible for immigrants to work here, they were playing a significant role in Alabama’s construction industry,” Caton says. “When our state became so unfriendly for them that they became fearful of living here and they left, they left a hole in our industry. A lot of the Hispanic guys were doing skilled trade labor like hanging sheetrock, painting, bricklaying, and we’ve lost a lot of that.”
Today, he says, “finding enough skilled labor is the single largest problem our contractors face.”
This isn’t just Caton’s opinion. AGC of America, the national headquarters for the Alabama chapter, did a survey. The results were staggering, with two-thirds of construction firms reporting they are having a hard time filling hourly craft positions that represent the bulk of the construction workforce. “It’s pretty simple,” says Caton. “An economy grows from an increase in worker productivity and an increase in the total number of workers. Bottom line is we have to have this skilled labor force.” In an effort to address those hiring demands, AGC convinced the state legislature to help fund training programs for the construction industry. But even the roughly $5 million raised for education in 2015, coupled with AGC’s own recruiting efforts, wasn’t enough. Foreign-born works play “a critical role” in filling workforce needs, he says.
Foreign-born works play “a critical role” in filling workforce needs, says Caton.
Caton wants to see the immigration system reformed so that Alabama’s immigrants can feel safe enough to come out of the shadows and work here legally. He would also like to see a more affordable, streamlined guest worker visa program and believes undocumented immigrants who are working and contributing to the economy, should be eligible for amnesty so that they can fully integrate. “In construction, your money is made and lost in the field,” explains Caton. “So if you’ve got skilled folks in the field, you’re more efficient. That makes everyone more profitable and changes the economy of the state. It helps the contractors, the clients, and it attracts industry. Alabama has a lot of other manufacturers in the car and other industries, but if our state did not have the contractors to build those plants and do the work that needs to be done in order to get them here, I don’t think you’d see that growth.”