The climate of instability on the island and the cap on seasonal visas for nonimmigrant foreign workers imposed by the administration of Donald Trump will make it more difficult for employers to find workers in the construction industry.
In anticipation of the disbursement of federal aid to help rebuild Puerto Rico, Emilio Colón Zavala, president of the Association of Builders of Puerto Rico (ACPR by its Spanish Acronym), and Alejandro J. Abrams, president of the Puerto Rico Chapter of the Associated General Contractors, warned about a possible shortage of workers. But also recognized that the demand for labor will depend on the number of funds allocated and the timing of the injection of money.
Close to $756 million are available now for post-Maria reconstruction. According to Colón and Abrams, the available workforce is sufficient to respond to the current need in the areas of carpentry, masonry, electricity, and plumbing.
But if the money allocated for permanent works is higher than expected as mentioned, more workers will be needed since the available manpower is not enough to supply the demand. The island could receive $12.5 billion in federal assistance and would need over 185,000 employees to get the job done.
Recognizing the need for laborers, the Association of Builders, the Associated General Contractors, and the government have offered training in the areas of great demand. Workers that participate in the rebuilding process will be paid $15 per hour, a salary that can be appealing to some.
But these training efforts are not enough. Colón pointed out that training personnel takes time and builders will still have to import labor.
Add another element to the equation: the restrictions on H-2B visas. These government authorizations allow employers to hire foreign workers seasonally to perform temporary nonagricultural services. After the change in policy, the visas will go only to returning foreign workers who have had the visa before, over the past three budget years.
Colón mentioned that Trump's decision to eliminate the Dominican Republic from the list of countries eligible for these working visas reduces the options for importing labor.
“We need a combination of labor import and training to meet the demand, each one alone will not resolve the situation. With the ineligibility of the Dominican Republic, we will have to resort to markets such as Mexico, Chile, Colombia or the United States, among others that we have visited on other occasions,” Colón said.
The situation worsens with the climate of uncertainty that prevails on the island. As a result, Colón and Abrams worry that the current chain of events could further delay the arrival of federal aid.
This scenario could have two effects. On one hand, it could offer additional time to complete the training of personnel. On the other hand, it could create a hiring freeze and cause an exodus of unemployed trained workers.