There was a short statement from the St. Louis Federal Reserve report last July that grabbed attention for a few days:
“Anecdotal evidence suggests employment is little changed since the previous report. Many contacts reported a desire to hire, but they have been unable to find suitable employees. Manufacturing contacts in Louisville and Memphis reported difficulties finding experienced or qualified employees, with some citing candidates’ inability to pass drug tests or to consistently report to work.”
St. Louis wasn’t the only region experiencing these problems — job applicants who couldn’t pass a drug test. The New York Times added more details and anecdotal evidence illustrating the issues in July 2017. However, there were several publications which tried to sound an alarm well before the Fed Report was made public. Business News Daily was slightly ahead of the report, with an article in mid May, 2017. Also in mid-May the Washington Post reported high levels of drug screen tests failed. A bit earlier, in March, CNN reported that some employers resorted to hiring refugees because of the number of home grown applicants who couldn’t pass drug tests. The Pittsburgh Tribune Review added more to the story in April, 2017. The reports were generally the same: The employer wanted to hire; applicants showed up; Drug tests were administered; and a significant percentage of the applicants failed. The Louisville Courier Journal and the Columbus Dispatch published their versions of the oft repeated tales in August 2017.
And then, as the temperature increased on other issues, North Korea, the Russian Investigations, Immigration, Charlottesville… the opioid and other drug related issues faded back into the shadows. So, why bring this up again now?
Because Houston, and a huge portion of east Texas is going to need rebuilding and this will have to be done by the construction trades — and what is becoming ever more prevalent in that sector of the economy? Drug testing. [proest]
Compounding the problem of finding qualified workers who can pass a drug test may be finding qualified workers in construction trades at all. The after effects of Wall Street’s Casino Bust of 2007-08 linger on in places like Chicago:
” …lingering hangovers from the recession mean there aren’t enough new workers to fill all the construction jobs, some contractors say. When work was scarce, some workers retired early and others switched careers, compounding concerns about an aging construction workforce. The median age of construction workers climbed to 40.4 in 2010 from 37.9 in 2000, according to The Center for Construction Research and Training. In addition, unions put apprenticeship programs on hold. They have come back online as projects have picked up, but the programs are several years long so there is a lag in turning out the needed skilled labor, Redpath said.”
Subcontractors who learned to do more with fewer hands during the Recession may still be reluctant to hire additional employees. While Chicago, and presumably other major areas around the country, aren’t experiencing major labor shortages for current projects, and the apprenticeship programs are back on track, the rebuilding of east Texas will have an impact on the drawing of skilled labor to that region. Since “travelers” don’t always have the best reputation for work product, many current projects have locked in specialists (electricians, plumbers, etc.) to meet their schedules with generous contracts and subcontracts. East Texans will have to compete with these elements during the rebuilding process. Beginning with the fact that there are already blue collar shortages:
“The problem is expected to worsen in the coming years as demand rises. BLS projects a 13% growth in the construction sector between 2014 and 2024 – far above the average 7% growth rate – resulting in 180,100 new jobs. If one assumes a conservative 20% replacement rate for retiring baby boomers, the total new demand in the decade ahead is 457,380 added professionals in the construction trades.
Over the next 10 to 15 years, the weak growth rate of labor productivity and the retirement of baby boomers are expected to further exacerbate the issue. A recent study by Conference Board analyzing 457 occupations ranked construction workers ninth in its labor shortages index, and found that the occupation faces a higher risk of labor shortage than 91.4% of all others examined. Skilled trades, such as electricians and welders, are at an especially high risk of experiencing a scarcity of labor.”[cecu]
Perhaps we need to step back a bit and instead of demeaning immigrant workers and visualizing the opioid addiction problem as one associated with “lesser beings,” we need to promote the idea that young workers — home grown and immigrant — will find productive and well paid employment in the construction trades. It would also be helpful if we invested in drug treatment and rehabilitation programs as a portion of our economic development vision for this country — instead of perceiving it as a ‘crime problem’ or seeing it as a ‘public health crisis.’ The compartmentalization of labor issues, public health issues, and crisis management issues merely serves to obscure the relationships between these three elements.
Take one major regional weather disaster, add a slowdown in the apprenticeship programs in the immediate aftermath of the Recession, add a general shortage of skilled blue collar workers to replace retirees, add the locked in contracts for other major projects, and then subtract the number of individuals who might otherwise qualify for construction employment but will be eliminated from hiring by positive drug tests and “Houston, we have a problem.”