Scott Sedam: Two sides of the non-resident labor issue
In response to Scott Sedam’s discussions of the coming labor shortage in America, Professional Builder readers sound off on both sides of the debate.
In 2012, I wrote two articles about our industry’s most serious labor issue. The first, “Managing the Coming Labor Crisis” (Professional Builder October 2012), surfaced the problem, stating that although it cried out for resolution, both presidential candidates were hamstrung by their constituencies, and that we’d not be hearing about it in the debates and campaign speeches. I was right about that, but it took neither clairvoyance nor genius to predict. The second article, “The 10-Step Immunization Plan” (PB November 2012), laid out specific steps builders can take to insulate themselves from the labor shortage and concluded with an appeal to adopt a workable guest-worker program.
I received a lot of email from these two articles — some pro, some con, and some more aptly described as caustic. Yet even in a couple of the letters that I did not like, strong points were made that deserve airing. What follows are two of the most passionate responses.
Great article Scott! You hit the nail on the head. A strong guest-worker program is exactly what we need. As a gringo living part time in Mexico for the last 16 years, I’ve come to intimately understand the Mexican psyche. Unfortunately, Americans in general have it all wrong. Mexicans love their way of life and their country, and if given the option would rather live in Mexico. There are too many hoops to jump through and not enough visas to meet the demand. That’s our fault, not theirs.
If a straightforward and quick-to-process guest-worker program was in place it would get used. No one I’ve talked with south of the border wants to cross illegally. They’ve heard the stories. The money is good, but from their point of view life is hard and expensive in the U.S. They want to make their money and return to their families. But until we get over the notion that everyone south wants to come here and stay permanently, I’m afraid we won’t make much headway with the American public.
How many myths does this shatter? I concede it is just one letter from an architect in the Southwest, but few of us have lived part-time in Mexico for 16 years and gotten the information first-hand. Would you rather believe pundits on TV and talk radio whose pay is directly commensurate with the amount of hysteria they generate?
In the past six years, my firm has had more than 2,500 supplier and trade firms participate in our Lean process implementations with more than 70 builders in 30 states. More than 300 of these firms are either Latino-owned or had Latino workers or managers in these small-team Lean sessions. That is a sizeable sample, and I can report that our facilitators have found the Latino workforce reliable, hard working, and willing to go the extra mile to help the builder improve. They are seen as nothing but assets.
Now let’s hear from a passionate anti-guest-worker writer. Some of the conclusions he reaches about my personal beliefs miss the mark considerably, yet he makes some compelling points, most of which I have spent a lot of time contemplating and several of which I advocate, as well.
Scott, I read your article, “Managing the Coming Labor Shortage.” Although you listed what you believed were the choices of “letting the bidding wars begin, or raising wages to attract non-illegal alien labor, or instituting a guest-worker program,” it was obvious from the tone of your article that you believe that increased enforcement of illegal immigration is bad, as it would lead to decimating the construction labor force that you believe is primarily made up of illegal aliens.
If your premise is correct — that a large percentage of the construction work force is made up of illegals and that they take these jobs because no American citizens will and that we should simply figure out a way to perpetuate this condition — I have to ask: What are you thinking? You are saying that we should let illegal aliens have these construction jobs because they will work for less money than an American citizen. Where does this notion of, “It’s okay to violate the immigration laws because we need access to cheap labor,” stop?
We are told that our produce will rot in the fields if we don’t have “cheap” (i.e., illegal immigrant) labor to harvest it. You tell us our buildings won’t get built unless we have “cheap” labor to build them. Our electronics manufacturers outsource their customer service call centers to India because of the “cheap” labor. We send our scrapped electronics to India to be dismantled for the rare earth and other metals they contain, because they will do the work without regard for the health or safety of the workforce or the pollution of their air, water, or land the operation creates.
With 25 million Americans out of work and God knows how many on food stamps or unemployment, don’t tell me if an American citizen had to choose between picking peaches, pouring concrete, or starvation or homelessness, that they wouldn’t take those jobs. The problem is our government has perpetuated an entitlement populace and needs to turn a blind eye to illegal immigration because someone has to get the work done.
Why don’t we have “shop” classes in our high schools any longer? Where have all the trade schools gone? Somewhere along the line, our children were told that if they want to get their piece of the American Dream, then they had to be educated. They were told to go to college and get advanced degrees if they really want the best shot at success. I’ve seen it happen in just three generations: Somehow working with your hands has become menial work and not equal to the stature of an “educated” person with a degree.
My immigrant grandfather made his way in this country as a carpenter. His son, my dad, didn’t go to college; he carried on the tradition as a builder. But he wanted more for his sons and pushed my brother and I to attend college. I stuck it out in college for a couple of years, but I felt most rewarded by what I could create with my hands and my mind and came back to carpentry and building. I have been in the construction industry for over 50 years and have never thought of my endeavor as menial. I passed the same attitude about the value of work to my son and grandsons, and they are all in construction.
If we close our borders to illegal immigration and we reinstitute a “work to eat” attitude in our society instead of one of governmental entitlement and handouts, I believe we can get our produce picked, our buildings built, and our customer service calls answered by American citizens once again. Will there always be a pecking order of sorts when it comes to the value of work performed for the compensation received? Certainly. But that is no reason to lower the standards for all manual labor work. Will a picker of produce be valued as highly as an electrician? Will a housekeeper in a hotel be valued as highly as a skilled mason? Will a person who mows lawns and prunes bushes be valued as highly as an auto mechanic? Probably not. But that does not mean these jobs have no value.
What is needed in this country isn’t more “cheap” labor, it is a reaffirmation of the value and status of being a proficient tradesman.
On face value, I cannot argue with many of the points this writer makes. I too have argued, both as a writer and as a presenter, that the loss of respect afforded to the construction trades is a travesty. I have complained about politicians pushing college, college, and more college without mentioning trade and technical schools. I have badgered my local high school principal about having slots for 50 universities on college night, yet not one for the local vocational-tech school. And I am certainly not saying that a total disregard of immigration laws and opening the border gates is any kind of alternative. Finally, when I see the continued abuse of welfare and most recently food stamps, I too wonder what is wrong with our system.
On a practical basis, however, I do not see his plan working. I have heard many business owners describe their inability to attract the “traditional Caucasian worker” to fair-paying jobs in the trades, while having Latino workers lined up, ready, and willing to work their tails off to provide for their families. If we could totally secure the borders and cut off all welfare and food stamp programs, would it change? Would the current recipients be willing to pick tomatoes, clean up after seniors in a nursing home, and haul bundles of shingles up a ladder? The truth is, the base-level jobs have always been done by immigrants in this country — legal or illegal. I don’t see a wholesale change in the laws coming, and we have clearly demonstrated the porosity of our borders to people of great determination.
The answer? Both writers make great observations and salient points, and I expressed sincere appreciation to each and all the others who emailed me after the first two articles. However, I do not think our country has either the time or the patience to turn back the clock and re-create the conditions for “plan 2.” I thus still conclude that the guest-worker program is the only practical alternative. In just the past few weeks, both President Obama and the Republican leadership have acknowledged the need and indicated a willingness to work on immigration reform. Perhaps 2013 will see some genuine progress on this critical issue.
Note: If you would like copies of my three articles on the trade shortage in a PDF, email me at email@example.com.
Scott Sedam is president and founder of TrueNorth Development. His articles appear monthly in Professional Builder and his Lean Building Blog appears each Tuesday on www.HousingZone.com. Sedam welcomes your questions and feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org and encourages budding “Leanistas” to join the LeanBuilding Group on www.Linkedin.com.
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