New York building industry needs workers, looks to immigrants and reform

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When any region of the United States has required workers for large building projects, immigrant workers have historically been relied upon. A recent increase in construction in New York City has resulted in a shortage of construction workers and, once again, America is looking for immigrants to help.

One of the largest building booms in New York City's history is currently under way, and the construction industry may soon have trouble finding enough young workers to fill all the jobs.

The New York Building Congress, a coalition of construction businesses in the region, says that, a growing number of the 275,000 construction workers they employ are young immigrants. After a slow-down in construction for the years immediately following the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, the building industry is again starting to worry that immigration laws may restrict future growth.

"One of the great implications here is the importance of immigration," according to Richard T. Anderson, president of the Building Congress. "We have a big stake in reasonable immigration legislation."

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Mr. Anderson said, the typical construction worker in the city is not an older, white suburbanite who commutes, but a younger city resident who is almost as likely to have been born abroad as in America.

In the last 10 years, Mr. Anderson said, the average age of construction workers in the city has dropped to 40 from 51. Almost half of them, 47%, were born abroad, he said.

Of the 275,000 workers, 123,000 are in construction, according to a report the group released this week. That number has risen almost 15% since 2004, marking the end of a three-year downturn. It is higher than the previous peak reached in 2001, according to State Labor Department figures.

William C. Thompson Jr., the city comptroller, said the strength of the city's housing boom surprised everyone, and is an important contributor to the "great shape" the city's finances are in. However, he cautioned that the rapid development of expensive housing has been driving municipal workers and middle-class families out of the city.

"Right now we have an affordable-housing crisis," Mr. Thompson said.

According to the report, 72% of all of the city's construction workers live in the city, most of them in Brooklyn and Queens. Most real estate workers live in Manhattan and most building services workers live in Staten Island and Queens.

In the building industry, the highest average wages go to workers in heavy and civil construction ($68,900), architectural and engineering services ($68,000), real estate ($47,600) and building services ($32,800), the report said.

It is likely that tens of thousands more immigrant workers will be needed in the construction industry in the next year or two. The industry may benefit from a Democrat controlled United States Congress. However, Congress needs to act quickly with their immigration reforms before their term ends in 2009.

Many industries are beginning to lobby the Congress with their own ideas and goals of how they would like to see immigration reform shaped. Also, many current members of the Democratically controlled Congress have promised serious and substantial reform legislation to the voters.

2007 and 2008 currently look like there could be some of the most significant changes in U.S. immigration policy in over a decade.


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