An Investment in Our Nation’s Infrastructure is an Investment in Our Skilled Workforce
Earlier this week, with the Dec. 4 deadline looming, leaders in the House and Senate negotiated an agreement for a $305 billion highway bill that would extend federal transportation funding for five years. If passed by Congress on Friday, which Speaker Paul Ryan fully expects, it would finally end the cycle of of temporary road funding patches that have made it so hard for states to plan long-term infrastructure projects.
In 2004, the Brookings Institution issued the report Toward a New Metropolis: The Opportunity to Rebuild America, which stated that “In 2030, about half of the buildings in which Americans live, work, and shop will have been built after 2000.” When you factor in the recession, we have lost years because much of the anticipated new construction has yet to be built.
Despite all this, the nation’s infrastructure challenges also bring career opportunities. Last year, the Brookings Institution’s Infrastructure Jobs blog series explained that “From airports and seaports to energy and water facilities, the U.S. depends on an enormous infrastructure network, drawing from a skilled and diverse workforce that makes up nearly 12 percent of our nation’s total employment. Across all industries, more than 16 million workers fill these infrastructure occupations nationwide.”
Not only can infrastructure jobs support the country’s ongoing economic recovery across multiple industries and geographic regions, these jobs typically require less formal education, yet pay competitive wages. The Brookings report shows that infrastructure jobs tend to pay 30 percent more to low-income workers compared to other jobs. Since many infrastructure workers have a high school diploma or less, on-the-job training, apprenticeships and certifications to operate equipment are vital. These career paths also play a major role in examining the needs of our aging workforce. With 2.7 million infrastructure craft professionals projected to retire over the next decade, recruiting and training the next generation of young craft professionals is even more critical. Not only will these jobs need to be filled, but another 1.1 million new infrastructure jobs will need to be filled by 2025.
Brian Deery, senior director of the highway and transportation division at The Associated General Contractors of America (AGCA), is involved with AGCA’s advocacy to help expedite the process of getting projects approved with all regulatory measures in place. Deery believes the craft professions with the most need are carpentry and electrical, along with bulldozer and crane operators for highway projects.
At the state level, Michael McDuff, executive director of the Louisiana State Licensing Board for Contractors, says that the shortage of workers and the aging workforce have been ongoing challenges for 30 years. “With partnerships and teamwork, we are moving in the right direction. The industry has taken initiative by funding cents-per-hour training programs and identifying training needs for owners. The industry is no longer one organization, one trade. The Construction Users Roundtable and other groups have really stepped up to the plate and joined forces for the common mission. I applaud NCCER on what is has done for many years with craft training and what it will do moving forward.”
McDuff adds that the shortage of skilled craft workers and the lack of funding are the biggest issues. “It takes political courage. Both the federal and state levels need to do a better job of identifying the needs for the public.”