San Antonio's construction boom up against labor shortage

Reasons for fewer construction workers vary

SAN ANTONIO – San Antonio’s boom in residential and commercial construction is up against a labor shortage, according to both the Greater San Antonio Homebuilders Association and the San Antonio chapter of the American Subcontractors Association

The reasons why depend on who you ask.

An undocumented construction worker said three of his cousins had been caught at a construction site recently and then deported.

“Nobody wants to risk it,” he said in light of stepped up immigration enforcement.

But a co-worker said he’s been too busy working to watch the news, so he’s not worried.

“If they want to run me off, go ahead,” he said, then pointed up to a roof under construction. “Put someone documented up there.”

The man said he’s among four workers tasked with roofing four houses in one week. They need at the very least four additional workers.

In a statement, John Leifester, vice president of the American Subcontractors Association local chapter, said, “We see this issue all the time.”

Leifester said his company’s “home-build dates” have gone from 117 days to almost 148 days for completion.

“I could bring in a crew and knock out a job in a day or two if I had eight to 12 guys. But now, I can barely get four to five guys to a site,” Leifester said.

Leifester said the longer it takes to finish a job, the more it cuts into their revenue.

“That changes the way that we bid jobs and prices increase because we anticipate a longer construction schedule,” Leifester said.

The American Subcontractors Association board doesn’t think immigration concerns are behind the labor shortage.

Jennifer Swinney, the local American Subcontractors Association executive director, said the association agrees the biggest factor is the belief that all high school students should go to college and work behind a desk.

In agreement is Jeff Buell, the co-owner of Sitterle Homes, which he said is San Antonio’s largest privately owned home builder. Buell serves on the board of the Greater San Antonio Homebuilders Association.

“In a few years, they can literally own their business and be making six figures really quickly, or they can have six figures of college debt," Buell said.

Buell said programs that teach construction trades like those at St. Philip's College and Warren High School can help fill the gap by training the next generation of skilled labor. The local American Subcontractors Association chapter also has two yearly events encouraging students to consider a construction trade.

Buell said it is hard work but well worth it.

Buell, who said Sitterle Homes only employs companies that hire U.S. citizens or those able to legally work in the U.S., said other factors are at play besides fears of deportation.

“The economy is taking off,” Buell said. “You have the oil field going. You have home building going strong, so that creates quite a shortage.”

Workforce Solutions Alamo reports that 54,500 people are employed in the construction industry with a 13-county region.

Spokeswoman Lydia Elder said it’s predicted the construction industry will grow by 27.9 percent by the year 2024.


"We do a lot of work with home builders, and we see this issue all the time.  Our home-build dates have gone from 117 days to almost 148 days to completion.  I could bring in a crew and knock the job out in a day or two, if I had 8-12 guys.  But, now, I can barely get 4-5 guys to a site, and I’m not as productive because we have more mobilization costs and there’s more days on the project to get the work done.  Ultimately, it’s the consumer that pays for it, because we as a business look at our productivity.  If I look at the 4-5 man crew and it seems that we are losing money, it’s because we’re having to take more days to do the job, and that cuts into the revenue.  So that changes the way that we bid jobs, and prices increase because we anticipate a longer construction schedule.   The schools aren’t encouraging or pushing students to look into the trades as a viable career choice.   At the end of the day, some kids are meant to go to college – and some kids are better suited for success if they go straight to work.   You see a lot of delays in the projects, because we’re losing crews left and right.  Guys don’t show up for work because they find a job that they seems to pay an extra buck or two an hour – what they don’t realize is that those jobs are short-lived.  They just need “warm bodies” for a quick turnaround, and then the workers are dropped.  Whereas, in the industry there’s benefits and room for advancement and a career path."

John Leifester
ASA San Antonio Vice President 2017-2018

"The shortage of a “skilled labor” force has been an issue for each of the trade industries for the past 10 to 15 years but has only recently manifested itself in this current growth period the city is currently experiencing.  The codes and specifications of construction have also become more stringent in this day causing more time to perform and inspect accordingly. “Skilled Labor” is no longer defined by a “heartbeat and a hammer” but rather individuals capable of a unique and/or licensed skillset on top of the many intangibles required to work on any construction project.  Some of those intangibles are project coordination with other trades and project controls, OSHA and First-Aid knowledge and compliance, municipal code compliance, and personal/project scheduling just to name a few. ASA-San Antonio and other trade associations are working diligently to fill these generational gaps by showing the industry as an opportunity for those seeking a profitable and fulfilling livelihood.  More importantly, changing the perception of the industry as one that will always be needed in the years ahead.  You can’t automate basic construction for the human factor will always be needed in order to achieve a final quality product.  The amount of public and private projects that San Antonio and its surrounding areas has strained the competent and established subcontractors not in the capability of performing quality work but rather meeting the aggressive and sometimes accelerated project timelines that have been set by the owner and/or the general contractors.  The competition is not only found within the industry, other industries such as oil, provide a labor drain in certain areas as well.  Free market is alive and well with those who can execute a job well done.  Subcontractors today, which comprise of over 98% of the labor being done on site, simply find a way of getting the work done to meet these deadlines and adapt to the paradigm shift that the industry is currently experiencing."

Tom Freund
Comfort-Air Engineering & Primo Plumbing
Past President, ASA San Antonio 2017-2018

"For several years now, the talk of labor shortage has been the subject of many conversations in the industry.    This is especially true in the skill trades area.  It did not matter if you were a general contractor, sub-contractor, a supplier, architect or anywhere in the line in the industry.  This lack of skilled labor was causing delays all the way down the line which led to slower economic growth everywhere.   At first, many believed it was going to be a short lived problem and the shortage would shrink.  It did not so the industry got more aggressive and started a pipeline of getting our youth interested in construction and giving them the tools to be successful.  Some of the actions we are developing are:
• Building training partnerships educators to establish training for students
• Mentorship programs where we are pairing interested individuals with skilled trade workers
• Apprenticeships where students will get to work, on-site, with trade workers of a skill they are interested in
• Working on developing a Skilled Labor Explorer Program with the Boy Scouts of America, Alamo Area Council
• Educating the public on the demands for skilled labor and the income possibilities that can be created by a career in skilled labor.
• But most exciting is we are encouraging more to look attending trade schools and/or two-year college degrees getting certified in a skilled labor field.  We took an extra step by creating scholarships specifically for this, trade schools or two-year skilled labor college degrees.
The skilled labor shortage is something we all need to be concerned with and want to help address."

Mike McGinnis
Allen & Allen Co.
ASA San Antonio Chapter Treasurer 2017-2018

About the Author:

Jessie Degollado has been with KSAT since 1984. She is a general assignments reporter who covers a wide variety of stories. Raised in Laredo and as an anchor/reporter at KRGV in the Rio Grande Valley, Jessie is especially familiar with border and immigration issues. In 2007, Jessie also was inducted into the San Antonio Women's Hall of Fame.