In August and September of 2017, the United States was hit with a series of natural disasters that caused billions of dollars in damage. Hurricane Harvey started a march of hurricanes that wiped out entire communities in the United States and entire islands in the Caribbean. When that sort of damage occurs, it is natural to think that there will be a sharp rise in construction jobs in the affected area for years to come. But it is always interesting to examine how natural disasters really affect construction jobs in many different ways.
Natural Disasters Do Not Ensure Construction Work
The Aftermath Of Hurricane Katrina
The entire world watched in 2005 as Hurricane Katrina destroyed many parts of the city of New Orleans and its suburbs. When the storm ended, there were months of rescue operations and relief efforts to help the people who had lost their homes. Many of the businesses in downtown New Orleans, including the French Quarter, suffered considerable damage. Images of the Superdome with its severely damaged roof and football field covered with refugees made people think that construction in that part of the country would spike for years.
The reality was much different than the expectations. In the 12 months that followed Hurricane Katrina, construction in New Orleans only rose by 6.4 percent. In the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina, construction hiring in Louisiana only barely exceeded the national average. At a time when everyone expected construction jobs to blossom in New Orleans, the reality is that the construction jobs were not significantly affected.
Natural Disasters And The Economy
Construction jobs in the wake of natural disasters are often affected by the same factors that affect jobs throughout the country. In September 2008, Hurricane Ike tore through Texas and wound up being the third most damaging hurricane in U.S. history. Logic would suggest that people need homes and businesses need to be repaired to reopen, so construction jobs would surely surge throughout Texas to recover after Ike.
Right around the same time Hurricane Ike hit Texas, the 2008 recession hit the housing market in the United States and sent financial waves throughout the world’s economies. The residential housing industry all over the country started to crumble, but many thought Texas would be the place to get construction work because of the rebuilding that needed to be done in the wake of Hurricane Ike.
By the end of 2008, the Texas construction industry had lost 94,600 jobs, which shocked many industry observers. The truth is that while the rest of the country was seeing construction job losses at record paces, the job losses in Texas were less because of rebuilding after Ike. However, even when rebuilding after a major hurricane, the construction industry is still significantly affected by the economic conditions around it. Not even natural disasters can ensure an increase of construction jobs when the domestic or international economic conditions are poor.
The Complex Relationship Between Construction And Natural Disasters
Economic factors are not the only considerations to make when talking about natural disasters and construction jobs. Hurricane Sandy hit the ground in early winter of 2012, and the harsh winter made it difficult for homeowners to find construction companies willing or able to do the work. The federal government was also slow in giving out aid to affected residents, and the result was barely a bump in construction hiring, even after the winter turned to spring.
It is easy to think that construction jobs should be a natural extension of natural disasters as rebuilding takes plenty of people, equipment, and materials. But there are other factors at work when it comes to rebuilding after a hurricane, and those factors will often decide how many jobs get added and for how long.
Construction Companies Learn And Adapt
One way in which construction jobs are added after natural disasters deals with trying to limit the damage from future disasters. When a big hurricane moves its way through an area, construction experts constantly look for ways to improve construction methods to prevent the same magnitude of damage from occurring in future hurricanes.
It can often take years for new construction methods to be approved, but those methods often lead to an increased need for skilled and unskilled laborers. For example, building codes in California have constantly been changed over the years in the wake of earthquakes, and those changes have led to an increased need for skilled and unskilled workers.
The Problems Facing The Construction Industry After Hurricane Harvey
In the discussion of construction jobs in the wake of natural disasters and the complex challenges the construction industry faces, these newest disasters will inevitably highlight two problems that have been plaguing the construction industry since 2016.
After the construction industry collapsed in 2008, thousands of skilled and unskilled workers left construction to find work in other fields. When the economy started to recover in 2011, those workers did not return to construction, and that has created a labor shortage that is only getting worse, we previously wrote about this here. Construction companies are finding it necessary to pay more money to skilled workers just to keep them, and even finding unskilled labor is becoming a problem. The younger generations are not interested in construction, which means that training replacements for the workers who left in 2008 is extremely difficult.
Political Climate Will Likely Change The Rebuilding Efforts
The other problem is the lingering shadow of President Trump’s border wall proposal that would spend billions on a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. During the summer of 2017, it seemed like talk of the border wall was dying down, especially when the Mexican government made it clear that it would not pay for the wall. But in late August 2017, President Trump and the Republican Party threatened to shut down the government if provisions for a U.S. funding of the wall were not approved.
All politics aside, this newest development shows that the president and the Republican Party are still interested in building the border wall. It would be a massive project that would require thousands of construction workers that, in all honesty, the American construction industry currently cannot spare. President Trump will certainly make provisions for making sure that no undocumented workers are allowed to work on the wall project, which would force the construction industry to dig deeper into its shallow workforce to get the project done.
It is expected that the federal government will offer large and profitable contracts to construction companies to build the wall, which would help to drain the construction talent pool even further. With such a strain put on the need for construction jobs and very little interest in the public at large for getting into the construction industry, the 2017 hurricane season could become the first where construction jobs are lost in the wake of major natural disasters.
It is common for the general public to expect a rise in construction jobs in the wake of natural disasters, but that is rarely the case. In the past, economic and weather conditions have hampered rebuilding efforts to the point where any increase in construction jobs due to the disasters was very small. In 2017, a serious problem with the available talent pool for the construction industry and, an increase in demand for the limited amount of workers that are available means that rebuilding after a natural disaster could take much longer than it has ever taken in the history of the United States.