This Labor Day, Hats Off to the Blue-Collar Workers Who Will Rebuild the Gulf Coast

This Labor Day comes at a moment when Houston and the Gulf Coast will need more blue-collar tradesmen and women than ever before thanks to the devastation left by Hurricane Harvey over the last week. While we honor the skilled workforce, we also recognized this simple truth: It will be more difficult to find the people who will do the work.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, more than 100,000 Hispanic workers – documented and undocumented – made their way to the Gulf Coast to help with the recovery after the storm. Much the same happened in Houston after Tropical Storm Allison devastated the city in 2001, causing $9 billion in damage.  

Several factors will now make attracting such a workforce to this state even more difficult, including the passage of a ban on “sanctuary cities” that’s already caused many authorized and unauthorized workers to flee. Construction executives from Houston to Dallas have told us that workers have not shown up on jobsites because they're worried local police will round them up. 

Prior to the storm, many contractors in Houston were already working toward making construction a more attractive profession through an initiative called the Construction Career Collaborative. It’s an alliance of socially responsible owners, contractors, and specialty contractors who are trying to improve the health and well-being of craft professionals and ensure a stable financial future for them as well. 

As reported by the Texas Tribune:

C3’s founders hope that they can spur industry leaders to participate in the change themselves. They aim to create a certification that could ultimately be good for a company’s brand — like the “LEED” label that signifies that a building is using water and energy as efficiently as possible — declaring that a building has been constructed with safe and well-paid labor, whatever the immigration status of its workers may have been.

“Whoever makes up our workforce, we want to train that individual ... to work safely, to work successfully and be paid properly,” said Chuck Gremillion, C3’s executive director. “And when we do that, the demand for their services grows, and through the law of supply and demand, their wages increase.”

Bolstering a skilled workforce in Texas is also the aim of education reforms passed by the Texas Legislature on 2013. The law, known as House Bill 5, creates multiple pathways to a high school diploma and was hailed by many business leaders as a way to change the “one size fits all” approach to K-12 education that had been criticized for years as solely preparing kids for college with no recognition that a successful career can be achieved in other ways as well.

The state has seen challenges when it comes to implementation of House Bill 5, however, including a lack of resources for additional school counselors to help students and their families navigate the new system for earning a diploma. We'll continue to track the development of that reform. 

Meantime, it has been inspiring to watch people in Houston temporarily fill the labor gap immediately by volunteering to do work like popping sheetrock and taking homes down to their frames. Some folks were using crowbars for the first time in their lives over the last few days, assisting fellow Houstonians with the repairs in their homes. “I don’t even know how people do this day in and day out,” said one, wiping sweat from their brow as they worked in the heat and humidity. 

Having grown up on a farm in Southeast Texas, I can tell you that the everyday grind of manual labor is enough to make a person consider a career in an industry as reviled as journalism. 

I'm kidding about that, sort of, but you get the point: The people who build our homes, high rise buildings, petrochemical plants, and other critical infrastructure deserve our respect and our thanks. And not just on Labor Day. 

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