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Policy change could bring needed workers out of shadows

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Our national security and energy independence are at risk because the United States has yet to address workforce issues critical to the Texas Gulf Coast. Let me explain.

I recently attended a conference in which two very informative speakers shared their perspectives on the oil and petrochemical industries. The first speaker gave an eye-opening presentation about why so much of the industry along the Texas coast is foreign-owned. It shouldn't surprise anyone that the low cost of natural gas, thanks to advances in exploration and fracking, is making it an attractive proposition. The price is right and the supply is impressive.

But the perhaps less obvious and important factor is the political and economic stability of our country. If businesses and governments are going to put billions of dollars into refineries and infrastructure, they want to be assured their investment is protected.

Another speaker at the conference explained the scope of work on the books for the next 10 years. Estimates of confirmed and proposed construction projects exceeded $350 billion. As someone who's been in construction for decades, I can tell you that is a staggering number. Even if 10 percent of those projects are canceled, the amount of work is unprecedented. The challenge will be finding the manpower to build and maintain the facilities. It is simply not possible for our existing workforce to come anywhere close to filling the need.

If manpower cannot be secured at competitive rates, it is quite likely these plants won't be built or the projects will be moved elsewhere.

To help address this, the Greater Houston Partnership - the area's largest business group - has been working diligently on a new initiative called UpSkill Houston. UpSkill is aimed at promoting careers across seven sectors. These are careers that do not require a four-year degree but do pay well and offer a chance to rebuild our middle class. Tens of thousands of job openings in Southeast Texas fit that description, including thousands in construction. Industrial and commercial contractors are working to attract young people from our high schools, community colleges and related industries. UpSkill Houston will point people to Construction Citizen for comprehensive information about careers in our industry. Despite those efforts, which will continue, finding enough skilled labor will still be extremely difficult.

One huge part of the solution is right before our eyes, but few have shown the political courage to address it. We have an estimated 2 million immigrants in Texas who are in the U.S. without authorization, including about 600,000 in the Houston area alone. Tens of thousands of them have been here for decades. They lack the right paperwork, but many possess the skills needed to build the Texas of tomorrow.

While some on the far right argue in favor of deporting 11 million people, more and more conservatives acknowledge that's not going to happen. The right alternative is for our government to identify those folks, require that they work for employers who deduct and match taxes, and allow them to become part of the solution instead of a perceived problem.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans will soon make a decision about President Barack Obama's executive order referred to as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, or DAPA. It would offer legal status to the undocumented parents of American-born kids. But it is not a free ride. Those parents must meet certain criteria and, if eligible, receive a three-year renewable work permit. Not amnesty. Not welfare. Just the right to come out of the shadows, work and pay taxes. It's estimated that roughly 5 million would be eligible.

The president's action would also offer protection from abuses these workers face every day, including the denial of health insurance, wage theft and no right to appeal to the authorities when they are not paid for their labor. These injustices happen all around us while many turn a blind eye.

Many of these skilled workers could quickly be available to fill jobs demanded by the industrial projects on the horizon.

A phone call to your congressman in support of DAPA might help break the log jam. Something will happen sooner or later in the great immigration reform debate. Let's just hope it's not too late for our Gulf Coast economy.

Originally published in the Houston Chronicle

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