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Companies can’t find workers to rebuild after Harvey and Irma

In Florida, people are still rebuilding after Hurricane Irma. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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After Hurricane Irma pounded the Florida Keys, flooding waterfront homes and shredding docks, Brett Ekblom's phone kept ringing with homeowners desperate to rebuild — and fast.

“I’m hearing from people who have had quite a bit of destruction," said Ekblom, who owns Native Construction Contracting in Key Largo.

On a typical day, he'd get one inquiry about a renovation. Now, he's getting four. 

But Ekblom is struggling to grow his staff of 20, who had a packed schedule before the storm hit the Keys and tossed seaweed everywhere. The chances of finding a skilled carpenter today, even with a Craigslist ad offering higher than usual wages?

“Slim to none,” he said.

From late August to mid-September, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma destroyed property across Texas and Florida, causing up to $200 billion in damages, according to an early estimate from Moody’s Analytics.

Maria brought further devastation, setting Puerto Rico's economy back decades. However, the island commonwealth has an 11.4 percent unemployment rate, which makes for a different labor situation.

Economists fear the otherwise tight U.S. labor market could hold back reconstruction, compared to previous disasters.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina wrought about $108 billion in damages. Demand in New Orleans soared for carpenters, electricians and plumbers. Immigrants flocked to the city for the blue-collar work. 

At the time, the country’s unemployment rate was higher — 4.7 percent when Katrina struck, compared to today’s 4.4 percent. More people were looking for jobs, particularly men. 

Male participation in the workforce was 73.3 percent in 2005, while today’s is 69.2 percent. Opioid use, now seen as a factor keeping men out of work, wasn't yet regarded as a national crisis, and immigration restrictions weren’t as tight. That made it easier for construction firms to find laborers in a hurry when it came time to fix things up. 

In contrast, monthly job openings in the United States reached a record high this summer at 6.2 million. Then came the hurricane season's aftermath, adding on to those vacancies as communities began to put themselves back together.

Employers nationwide are complaining about a labor shortage, especially in traditionally male-dominated fields, such as manufacturing and construction. Business owners say a lack of skilled workers who can pass a drug test has stalled their growth.

Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at RSM, said post-hurricane reconstruction will prove especially challenging because of the tight labor market.

“There is not a significant surplus of labor ready to re-enter the workforce to take relatively higher paying construction jobs that will be available in Houston and across much of Florida,” he wrote in an analysis ahead of Friday’s job report.

“While it is understandable that the focus is still on the human costs to hurricanes in Texas, Florida and the U.S. Caribbean, the likely economic narrative going forward will be: Where are all the workers necessary to rebuild?”

Charles “Chuck” Mason Jr., president of Mason Construction in Beaumont, Tex., said people are still trying to dry out their houses after Harvey. Starting work while the walls and floors are still damp, he explained, would seal in mold.

So church halls remain full of people sleeping on donated mattresses.

“This is going to be the biggest demand probably ever in this area for the housing trade,” he said. “And there’s a severe shortage of qualified workers.”

Houston, about 85 miles west of Beaumont, has swept up many of the area’s craftsmen, he said.

Mason Jr., 67, is having trouble hiring just one more carpenter to help clean up the area’s petroleum plants. He’s looking for an extra 25.

“When you add in all the demand in Florida, there’s going to be a shortage nationwide of people with those skills,” he said.

The labor shortage is already boosting salaries. Median pay for construction workers in the United States is $16 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Ekblom, who runs the Key Largo construction company, said he’s offering between $17 and $20, depending on experience. He’s looking for at least ten more workers.

Many are still fixing their own homes. Ekblom cleared a tree off a neighbor’s roof for free. Now his staff faces sand all over construction sites, tipped port-a-potties, flipped dumpsters, broken gates, trashed roofs and soaked basements.

“Almost every dock in the entire Keys is gone,” he said. “We’re just getting started.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post said Houston was east of Beaumont. It is west.

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