Can refugees and former inmates help fill the labor gap in Arizona?
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In the Phoenix area, home builders are desperately short of skilled laborers, from electricians and plumbers to masons. With fewer people taking jobs in the construction industry, developers are having a hard time keeping up with demand, stalling housing market growth in the area.
Just before the housing market crash, a five-bedroom house in the suburbs took about three months to finish. Today, it’s closer to six.
“Unfortunately the workforce hasn’t kept up with the demand,” said Toby Thomas, the president of state-based electrical subcontractor Austin Electric. “There is a significant gap right now.”
Thomas added his company is often three days behind on jobs. When others are on a similar delay, that slows down the overall building pace. Dennis Hoffman, an economist at Arizona State University, explained the Great Recession is partly to blame for the labor shortage.
“Most of these folks moved on to different pursuits,” he said.
Low pay compared to neighboring states is also a factor. The $23 an hour that electricians see in Arizona is about 30 percent lower than California, but Hoffman said one of the biggest issues is Arizona’s passage of strict anti-illegal immigration laws.
“Available labor, especially from south of the border, especially geared toward construction, was made much more difficult for contractors to obtain,” he said.
So the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona and other partners are setting up training programs so they can tap other sources of labor, such as refugees. Nasrullah Shinwari, originally from Afghanistan, is training to be an electrical worker.
“It’s difficult but it’s not dangerous,” Shinwari said. “That’s why I like it.”
Vocational programs in the state prison system are another promising labor source.
“So I’m breaking down what a series circuit looks like,” said electrical program instructor Anthony Wright, while teaching a recent class at the Arizona State Prison Perryville Complex.
“It’s definitely something I want to do when I’m released,” added Ashley Roberts, one of his students.
And contractors are just as eager to hire these inmates once they’re out. The Home Builders Association is even holding job fairs inside prisons. So many of the inmates here could have a job waiting for them as soon as they’re released.
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