A month after immigrating to the U.S. from Afghanistan, cousins Zaki Yousafi and Edris Baraka secured a job with Blue Diamond Construction. 

They had the skills and the experience since they owned a construction company in Afghanistan but a booming industry and major labor shortages in the U.S. made it easier for them to find an economically rewarding job with plenty of opportunities to grow. 

“In construction, experience is really important, you have to know what you’re doing,” said Yousafi.

Thousands of immigrants enter the U.S. every year, often in search of physical safety and economic security. Many of them have embraced work in construction, a sector that has long relied on immigrant labor, lured in by the attractive compensation and job security. 

In the past two years, the U.S. has seen a surge in immigration. The Congressional Budget Office states that from 2010 to 2019, immigration averaged at 900,000 people per year. In 2022, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that immigration to the U.S. was 2.6 million and 3.3 million for 2023.

Recently, growing demand and an aging labor force have construction companies scrambling to find more workers. In the last 12 months, the construction sector has added, on average, 22,000 jobs per month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, economists agree that it’s not enough to fill in the major labor shortages and immigration could solve the problem.

Demand is only set to increase. Several recent pieces of legislation have accelerated demand for construction workers, including the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which aims to build and repair America’s new and existing infrastructure; the CHIPS and Science Act, created to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. and reduce reliance on heavy imports that are easily affected by supply-chain disruptions; and the Inflation Reduction Act, which grants loans to environmentally-friendly infrastructure projects. 

“The bill [the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law] opens up a lot of opportunities for heavy infrastructure projects (roads and bridges) across the country,” Yongwei Shan, assistant professor of Construction Engineering & Project Management at Oklahoma State University, wrote in an email.

For construction firms, the labor shortage has emerged as an even bigger challenge than the high prices in construction materials. April’s construction outlook by the Associated General Contractors of America states that “labor availability has resumed being the number one challenge for many contractors.”

“It’s been more difficult for construction firms to attract workers than it was before the pandemic and that was already quite difficult,” said Kenneth Simonson, chief economist of the Associated General Contractors of America. 

The labor shortage in construction is nothing new. In recent decades, younger generations were strongly advised and encouraged to pursue a college degree instead of learning a trade. The promise of a job with a high salary in a comfortable environment without the risk of injury was alluring to native-born Americans. That led to a shortage of native-born construction workers.

Immigrants filled the void. In 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that “one in four construction industry workers are foreign born.”


“Although construction jobs are paid a little bit more, fewer young people really want to work in the construction field because jobs are more physically demanding and construction job sites are more hazardous and exposed to weather,” Shan wrote. “This might be another reason why you see fewer U.S. citizens and more migrants in the construction fields.”

The pandemic exacerbated the problem by encouraging the adoption of work from home practices, which made white collar professions more appealing.

“So many more jobs can be done and people want the jobs that can be done remotely or in a hybrid-basis and with flexible hours, things that just aren’t possible for on-site construction work,” said Simonson. 

A drop in the overall labor force participation rate has also added to the labor shortages. Research by The Brookings Institution and the Migration Policy Institute have repeatedly found that low birth rates, a large aging workforce and prime age workers (those of ages 25 to 54) that never returned to work after the pandemic have contributed to the decline. 

Economists and contractors alike see immigration as one of the solutions to help fill in the labor shortages.

“A lot of migrants may end up in construction since the entry barrier is low and language requirements are not that much compared to other jobs,” wrote Shan.  

Michael Willcox, vice president of operations at Peery Homes in South Carolina, said that ever since he joined the construction industry in 1987, immigrants have always been a reliable source of labor. 

“If it wasn’t for the immigrant community, construction would not happen,” he said.

It isn’t clear how many members of the recent wave of immigrants have already found their way to construction jobs. But there is evidence that they are already helping to address labor shortages more generally. A study by the Brookings Institution found that “faster population and labor force growth has meant that employment could grow more quickly than previously believed without adding to inflationary pressures.”

Moreover, the study found that “the unexpectedly high level of immigration also explains some of the surprising strength in consumer spending and overall economic growth since 2022.”

But the benefits of the recent immigration wave have been limited by current immigration policies that make it hard to hire foreign-born workers. The process to obtain a visa or work permit is not only lengthy and expensive but limited to certain professions, and most of the time not available to construction workers. Additionally, many of those awaiting asylum status are still pending, others face the possibility of being denied.

“We have an immigration system that really doesn’t create a lot of opportunities for people to lawfully enter the country and work in construction,” said Brian Turmail, vice president of public affairs and strategic initiatives of the Associated General Contractors of America. “Most of our temporary work visa programs are geared toward agriculture, hospitality or technology.”

Economists and construction-industry leaders largely support an updated immigration reform that will allow current and new foreign-born workers to join the workforce, filling in the labor shortages and stabilizing the decline of the labor force participation rate. 

“I think, if we could, the people that want to be here and work, you know, let’s figure out how to get them here in the right way and quicker because that’s gonna help out the labor force,” Willcox said.