Phoenix-Area Home Builders Look To Refugees, Former Inmates To Fill Labor Gap

By Carrie Jung
Published: Monday, October 24, 2016 - 9:07am
Updated: Wednesday, November 21, 2018 - 8:13am
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(Photo courtesy of the Arizona Department of Corrections)
Anthony Wright teaches five classes a week at Arizona State Prison - Perryville Complex
(Photo by Carrie Jung - KJZZ)
Nasrullah Shinwari works with Austin Electric to add electrical wire to a five-bedroom house before drywall is added.

Just before the housing bubble burst in 2008, a five-bedroom house in the Valley took about three to four months to finish. Today, not so much.

"Our homes are being built in four to five months. Other builders are quoting people up to 10 months," explained Bob Dalton the production manager with Meritage Homes.

The housing market here is definitely in recovery mode. New home starts in the area are up by almost 250 percent from the height of the recession and demand is increasing. The only problem?

"They’re selling them faster than we can build them," said Toby Thomas, the president of Austin Electric, a state based electrical subcontractor.

Right now, the workforce isn't keeping up with demand, and the gap is significant. Thomas said at his current staffing levels, his company is often three days behind on jobs.

While that may not sound like a lot on the surface, when other subcontractors are on a similar delay, that slows down the overall building process. Beyond electrical workers, fields like masonry, plumbing and even framing are seeing shortages too. Part of the problem is not enough high school students are interested in these careers. But it’s more complicated than that. When the economy crashed many skilled workers left the industry.

"Most of these folks moved on to different pursuits," explained Dennis Hoffman, an economist with Arizona State University.

Hoffman added wages for skilled laborers in Arizona are low compared to neighboring states. And while builders say they wish they could fix this problem by just offering employees more money, they're already working on slim profit margins in the Valley. The housing market here is not very elastic in terms of price, so an increase of just $10,000, many builders argue, can price them out of the competitive range.

And then there’s Arizona’s political climate. Hoffman cites anti illegal immigration laws like Senate Bill 1070 and regulations requiring employers to use the E-verify system when hiring, as examples.

"Available labor, especially from south of the border, especially geared toward construction, was made much more difficult for contractors to obtain," he said.   

So what's a builder to do in these market conditions? In many cases, necessity has been the mother of invention over the last few years. Austin Electric, for example, is now partnering with several organizations, including the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona, to train refugees to be electrical workers, like Nasrullah Shinwari. He used to be an interpreter for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan.

"We were faced with attack, we were faced with fighting," said Shinwari. "But this job is easy and not danger. That’s why I like it."

Another program builders are relying on in this labor market is the Rio Salado College and Arizona Department of Corrections Incarcerated Re-Entry Program.

"I’m breaking down what a series circuit looks like," said electrical program instructor Anthony Wright during a recent class at the Arizona State Prison - Perryville Complex. The program is so popular in this women’s prison, his classroom is always full. 

"It’s definitely something I want to do when I’m released," said inmate Ashley Roberts. "I’m excited to learn."

And Valley contractors are just as eager to participate. Many of the inmates here who want to use their new skills have a job waiting for them as soon as they’re released.

"Pretty much, you just have to show up and want to work and take advantage of the opportunity given to you," said Roberts.

Roberts said she's grateful to have the opportunity to get a good job when she's released in 2018 as she knows that many employers are hesitant to hire someone with a felony on their record.

Back at the job site, Austin Electric president Toby Thomas said these programs are working well for his company.

"They’re all very motivated, hard workers," he said. "And we’ve just been expanding on it ever since."

He added they’re reliable. And without training programs like these, he’d be running 30 days behind on jobs rather just three.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been modified to reflect involvement of the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona and the Arizona Department of Corrections in these programs. Also, KJZZ is licensed to Rio Salado College, which is one of the Maricopa County Community College District schools.