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Why the Central Texas Construction Boom Isn't Benefitting Everyone

It seems like everywhere you look, there's a construction site in Austin, complete with the unofficial state bird of Texas, the construction crane.

Some are calling it a boom, but it's a boom that’s not exclusive to Austin. Whether you drive south to San Marcos or north to Georgetown, there are new buildings popping up all over Central Texas.

That boom has certainly been good for the economy and overall employment numbers, but, for some smaller construction firms it’s been tough-going trying to compete with larger outfits that can afford to pay workers up to $35 an hour.

The boom has not been kind to Rolando Jaimes, for instance. He is the President of PCW Construction, a family business in Southwest Austin.

Just a couple of years ago, Rolando Jaimes had about 70 employees at his Southwest Austin construction company, PCW Construction. Now, he says can hardly keep the 35 people who are working for him because they’re being poached by larger contractors.

"They actually go to job sites," he says, "and what they do [is] offer them like a bonus checks [sic] to sign in with them."

If a supervisor leaves and takes his entire crew with him, he gets a bonus for each of his crew members as well.

Jaimes says larger firms’ promises make it tough for PCW and other smaller contractors to compete in this environment.

Jaimes' most recent loss was an employee who was approached by a larger construction firm, and was offered $35 an hour. The employee was making $20 an hour, and Jaimes offered him $22 an hour to try and keep him, but said he couldn’t pay the $35 an hour wage. Jaimes says the employee laughed and then left.

Not everyone is rushing to cash in on the bonanza.

In North Austin, Armando Guerrero specializes in drywall work. He makes about $18 an hour. He says he could be making much more at the site of the medical school at the UT campus, for instance, or at one of the high rises under construction in downtown Austin.

But, Guerrero has decided to stay with his current boss because he treats him with respect and provides him with steady work. There's so much demand, Guerrero could work Saturdays and Sundays if he wanted to, he says. The only reason Guerrero stays, he says, is because he wants to work at a safe place when the boom goes bust.

With all this competition for construction workers in Central Texas, one might think things are slow at Austin's Day Labor Center, but they aren't.

Credit Ilana Panich-Linsman/KUT
Before the construction boom, PCW had about 70 workers. That number's been halved since larger firms started poaching his workers, he says.

David Barrera, a supervisor at the center, says there are still many workers who can't land a good paying construction job.

“It’s more difficult for day laborers to seek work through the larger construction companies,” Barrera says. “In their case, they require more paperwork and things that, in a lot of cases, these workers [aren’t] able to comply with.”

Many women come to the day labor site too, though there’s hardly ever work for them, Barrera says. Women, recent immigrants who don’t yet know how to work around the system, unskilled workers and ex-cons are some of the groups that haven't been able to benefit from the Central Texas construction boom, Barrera says.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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