Workforce: Immigrants Play Key Role In Utility Construction

By Jeff Griffin, Senior Editor | March 2009 Vol. 64 No. 3

Editor's note: This article continues Underground Construction's series on the labor crisis facing many segments of the construction industry, which emphasizes the importance of education and training. See other recent articles in the series: 6 7]

Over the past several years, foreign-born workers have played an increasingly important role on most types of construction projects, including utility construction.

Many employers find immigrant employees to be extremely hard working, dependable and often willing to take difficult, low-paying jobs that others in the workforce refuse.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that in 2007 foreign born workers – both in the country legally and illegally – comprised about 15 percent of the U.S. workforce. Of those, about 6.7 million were believed to be employed in the construction/extraction category which includes utility construction. A study by the Pew Hispanic Center (Passel 2006) concluded that illegal workers accounted for 25 percent of general construction laborers.

"Certain construction trades are considered 'immigrant saturated,' because illegal foreign born workers account for very large percentages of employment in those trades,” says Dallas attorney Elise Healy, a founding shareholder in the firm of Spencer Crain Cubbage Healy & McNamara, who heads the company's business immigration practice.

"Utility workers," she continues, "include highly skilled construction trades ranging from electricians, plumbers, pipefitters, pipe layers, drilling equipment operators and others, as well as lower skilled laborers. I think the relative youth and lower educational attainment of many recent immigrants – both legal and illegal – have attracted them to helper and general laborer occupations.

“Accurately distinguishing between legal and illegal foreign born workers in the construction industry is a real problem because the decennial census and BLS population surveys do not inquire into immigration status of employees," says Healy.

"Demographers at the Pew Hispanic Center apply a statistical analysis that concluded the construction industry as a whole employed about 1 million unauthorized workers nationally," says Healy. "The same study found that about 20 percent of illegal workers are employed in construction."

Legal workers