As the post-fire North Coast rebuilds, where will the construction workers come from?
When economist Christopher Thornberg told a room of Sonoma County business leaders on Nov. 17 that the region would need about 6,300 construction workers annually over the next three years to fully rebuild in the aftermath of the devastating wildfires, there was an audible gasp in the room.
“It was, ‘Oh my god, how are we are going to get that many people?’” said Stephen Jackson, director of college and career readiness for the Sonoma County Office of Education, of the reaction.
Where will contractors get the thousands of workers they’ll need to rebuild all the fire-ravaged homes? Despite new training programs and ways to bring in workers from afar, a worker shortage could mean delays and higher costs.
Even prior to the fires, the industry was struggling to recruit more workers to keep up with a building boom that created jobs for 13,900 workers in Sonoma County for October. The sector will now likely need a boost far beyond that number to rebuild the more than 5,100 destroyed homes in Sonoma County as well as keep up with construction work already planned outside of the fires. The local effort also includes an additional 1,000-plus structures destroyed in Mendocino, Napa and Lake counties.
“We had a real problem of worker shortage before the fires. It has been magnified a hundred times over with the disaster,” said Keith Woods, president and CEO of North Coast Builders Exchange, which represents construction-related firms in the region.
The group is conducting its own survey on workforce needs.
Along with local agencies, the industry has responded with efforts to expedite training for high school students as well as adult education programs so people can quickly enter the workforce. Also being explored is the concept of using workers who might have barriers, such as non-English speakers or a previous criminal conviction. And the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) has ramped up a program that has already provided training to 452 workers for certification in handling hazardous materials, which allows them to participate in removing debris from gutted structures.
But even those efforts are likely not to be enough, and the sector will need to recruit employees from outside the region, possibly in the thousands. That brings up other challenges, such as where these workers will live in the midst of a housing crisis.
“That’s topic A for a lot of people on the rebuild,” Woods said.
Local officials do have a few months to develop a plan because rebuilding will not start to ramp up until late spring at the earliest, he added. Contractors, however, have noted a few workers involved in the recovery efforts are already living temporarily at local campgrounds.
All that outreach still may not be enough, industry officials caution. The consequences of the labor shortage will then be felt throughout the entire community, but especially by displaced residents who will have to wait longer to finally go home and will have to pay more for their new houses as a result of a marketplace where worker wages are expected to rise.
Builders constructed only about 4,200 new single-family homes in the county in the past decade. Longtime Santa Rosa developer Tux Tuxhorn noted the contrast between those results and the pace of construction that the community wants to achieve in the next two years — the time frame when insurance policies will stop paying for temporary rental housing for the displaced.