The Deep Roots of Skilled Labor Shortages: Anti-Union, Anti-Worker Corporations

A recent story from NPR’s Andrew Schneider, about a construction boom and skilled labor shortage in Texas, is missing some of the links needed to understand what is happening there and why. The elements are all there: the huge loss of construction jobs following the financial crisis in 2008, the energy boom creating jobs regionally even while construction employment nationally remains about a million and a half jobs lower than its peak, a decline in unauthorized immigration, and contractors grudgingly increasing pay to attract workers.

The two missing links are the role of the construction owner, like Chevron, in crushing the unions that provide skilled journeymen in the construction trades, and a clear discussion of the wage levels needed to attract skilled workers from parts of the country the recovery hasn’t reached. The story says wages are rising in Texas, but from what to what? Are wage levels high enough to persuade a journeyman electrician from Michigan or Los Angeles to relocate to Houston? Or are they unreasonably low, given the scarcity of skilled workers and the years of training required to produce a journeyman? How do union wages compare with non-union wages? The story never says.

Oil giants like Chevron can afford to have their construction contractors pay well for skilled work, but they resist. Organizations they fund, such as the Business Roundtable, have led a decades-long campaign to weaken or destroy the building trades unions that actually train the greatest number of skilled tradesmen. Chevron, Koch Industries, ExxonMobil and many other energy industry corporations fund the American Legislative Exchange Council and its legislative efforts to kill unions and eliminate labor standards. It’s hard to hear Chevron complain about a labor shortage when Chevron and other Fortune 500 companies themselves are a major cause. They don’t merely fight unionization, they also oppose the state and federal prevailing wage laws that protect construction wages from being driven lower and allow union apprenticeship programs to continue providing the best-trained workers.

Schneider is wrong to suggest that community college vocational training programs are the long-term solution to the shortage of skilled labor in Texas. The real solution is to restore the power and reach of the unions, raise wages to attract more workers, and grow the only proven way to develop the necessary skilled labor—apprenticeship programs funded by employers and jointly administered by unions and employers.


  • Raymond Armstrong

    Having been an IBEW apprenticeship instructor for 15 years and a retired Journeyman Wireman with 45 years in the trade, I have agree to with Mr. Eisenbray. Low wages do not bring about a strong skilled labor force and learning to be a skilled craftsman takes, depending on the trade, 3 to 5 years of both classroom and on the job training. The Joint Apprenticeship training between the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the National Electrical Contractors Association requires 900 hours of classroom training plus 4000 hours of on the job training. Community Colleges cannot fill this void. Most Trade Unions have more than 100 years training experience that works and provides skilled labor that complete any construction project on time with competitive costs.

  • 3FHC

    The actual skills and training that Unions impart are almost never part of the national conversation. There are plenty of skilled craftsman in the US that never worked a Union job, however, I always find it interesting to observe the quality of tile work in commercial settings in big cities versus smaller cities and towns where Unions are rare to non-existent. If you start to take notice you’ll quickly see what I mean.

  • tarajunky

    When there is truly a scarcity, wages rise. A young man can graduate from high school, drive to North Dakota, and be pulling down $150k or more per year within 18 months. If they don’t want to work the oil fields, WalMart is paying $18 per hour because everybody is working the oil fields and they can’t fill the jobs.

    Now compare this to your local union. They complain that wages are too low, then they turn around and shovel money into the Democrat party and together hop in bed with the Chamber of Commerce to push for amnesty and unlimited H1-B visas.

    Every industry that has large numbers of H1-B visas also have stagnating wages, intense competition, low job security, etc. Back in the day true labor supporters like Cesar Chavez and true liberals like Walter Mondale were intensely OPPOSED to open borders and illegal immigration. I lost all respect for unions when they hopped in bed with the corporatists to push for amnesty, open borders, and H1-B visa increases.

    • Celeste Drake

      What is the “Democrat party”? Is it some kind of attempt to be funny, like if I said “Republic party”? It’s not funny, and frankly just sounds petty at worst or uninformed at best.
      But you are right, there is no shortage of skilled labor in Texas. What is there is a shortage of employers who are willing to pay the wage necessary to attract the skilled labor they want. So they will moan and complain about the lack of skilled labor, but they won’t raise their wages. That is greedy and counterproductive and in no way, shape or form the fault of unions or of immigrants.