WASHINGTON — The infrastructure bill President Biden hopes to pass Congress should create jobs and boost projects for companies like Anchor Construction, which specializes in repairing aging bridges and roads in the nation’s capital.
But with the aging baby boomers and not enough young people to replace them, John M. Irvine, a senior vice president at Anchor, worries there won’t be enough workers to hire on all those new projects.
“I’d be surprised if there’s a firm that says they’re ready for this,” said Mr. Irvine, whose company employs about a dozen skilled workers, pipelayers and concrete finishers. If the bill passes Congress, he said, the company will most likely have to double the amount it takes.
“We’re going to have to get more staff,” Mr. Irvine said. “And no, there are not enough skilled workers to fill these jobs.”
Biden has touted the $1 trillion infrastructure bill as a way to create millions of jobs, but as the country faces a dire shortage of skilled workers, researchers and economists say businesses may find it difficult to fill all those job openings. to fulfill.
The bill could create new jobs in sectors critical to the country’s public works, such as construction, transportation and energy. S&P Global Ratings estimated the bill would boost productivity and economic growth, adding $1.4 trillion to the U.S. economy over eight years. But if there isn’t enough labor to meet demand, efforts to strengthen the country’s highways, bridges and public transportation could be reversed.
“Do we now have the staff ready to take care of this? Absolutely not,” said Beverly Scott, vice chair of the president’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council.
Understand the infrastructure bill
- A trillion dollar package has passed. The Senate approved a sweeping bipartisan infrastructure package on Aug. 10, ending weeks of intense negotiations and debates about the largest federal investment in the country’s aging public works system in more than a decade.
- The final vote. The final score in the Senate was 69 for and 30 against. The legislation, which has yet to pass the House, would affect nearly every facet of the US economy and bolster the country’s response to global warming.
- Main spending areas. In general, the two-pronged plan focuses on spending on transportation, utilities, and cleaning up pollution.
- transport. About $110 billion would go into roads, bridges and other transportation projects; $25 billion for airports; and $66 billion for railroads, giving Amtrak the most funding it has received since its founding in 1971.
- Utilities. Senators have also taken $65 billion to connect hard-to-reach rural communities with high-speed internet and help enroll low-income urbanites who can’t afford it, and $8 billion for Western water infrastructure.
- Cleaning up pollution: About $21 billion would go toward clearing abandoned wells and mines, and Superfund sites.
A recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey found that 88 percent of commercial construction contractors reported having moderate to severe difficulties finding skilled workers, and more than one-third had to turn down work because of labor shortages. According to an estimate by Construction Industry Resources, a data company in Kentucky, the industry could have a shortage of at least two million workers through 2025.
The pandemic has exacerbated the labor shortage as sectors such as construction see a boom in home projects with more people telecommuting and moving to the suburbs. Contractors have also faced scarcity of supplies as prices for products such as wood and steel rose.
Construction job openings rose rapidly after the industry lost more than a million jobs at the start of the pandemic. According to an Associated Builders and Contractors analysis, construction job openings are up 12 percent from prepandemic levels. But the industry has still lost about 232,000 jobs as of February 2020, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The issue underlines an eternal challenge for the skilled craftsmen. Not enough young people are entering the sectors, a concern for companies as older workers retire from construction, carpentry and plumbing. And while many skilled trades positions have competitive wages and lower educational barriers to entry, newer generations tend to view a four-year college degree as the standard path to success.
Infrastructure workers tend to be older than average, which raises concerns about workers retiring and leaving hard-to-fill positions. For example, the median age of construction and building inspectors is 53, compared to 42.5 for all workers nationwide. According to an analysis by the Brookings Institution, only 10 percent of infrastructure workers are under 25, while 13 percent of all U.S. workers are in that age group.
“The challenge is, how are we going to replace many of the workers who are retiring or leaving their jobs — not just growing, but replacing them?” said Joseph W. Kane, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “A lot of people, especially younger people, just don’t even know these jobs exist.”
Community colleges, which offer a variety of vocational training programs, have experienced a steep decline in enrollment. A recent estimate by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that community colleges were the hardest hit of all colleges, with enrollment falling 9.5 percent this spring. More than 65 percent of the total loss in undergraduate enrollment this spring occurred at community colleges, according to the report.
Nicholas Kadavy, a third-generation mason who owns Nebraska Masonry in Lincoln, Neb., has tripled his workload since April. He said his company had already planned work until June 2022.
He wants to hire more skilled masons to complete the projects sooner, but he can’t find enough people to fill the dozens of vacancies he has open, even though he’s willing to pay up to $50 an hour — twice what he offered. before the pandemic. He checks his email daily, waiting for more applications.
“My biggest struggle is finding guys who want to work,” said Mr Kadavy.
Even if he does hear from job applicants, Mr Kadavy said, he is unable to hire many of them because they are not qualified enough. He saw a shortage of skilled masons before the pandemic, he said, and he worries the craft is “dying out” as newer generations don’t emulate the field.
The country’s public transportation systems would receive $39 billion under the infrastructure bill, allowing agencies to expand their service and upgrade decades-old infrastructure. But transport companies are dealing with their own staff shortages and a shortage of bus drivers, metro operators and maintenance technicians.
Metro Transit in Minneapolis is aiming to hire about 100 bus drivers by the end of the year, said Brian Funk, the agency’s acting chief operating officer. The agency originally set a goal to hire 70 employees by the end of June, but it has only achieved about half of that goal.
While he’s optimistic the agency will be able to fill those remaining positions after ramping up efforts to promote the openings, he said he’s still wary of some employees choosing to leave.
“We know that every day that goes by has the potential for someone else to be looking for retirement or another job,” Mr Funk said.
Some are optimistic that policymakers will be able to scale up workforce development programs to keep up with the demand the infrastructure bill would create. Projects could take several months to kick off, economists said, giving the country time to train unqualified workers.
“These problems are not insurmountable,” said Nicole Smith, chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “Not having a sufficiently skilled workforce is something that can be addressed.”
But others are concerned that the bill isn’t doing enough to attract more people to infrastructure areas, especially historically underrepresented groups like women and people of color. Although Mr Biden originally proposed a $100 billion investment in workforce development, that funding was omitted in the latest version of the bipartisan infrastructure law. The funding is said to have invested in vocational training for previously incarcerated people, including creating millions of registered apprenticeships.
Last week, the National Skills Coalition and more than 500 other organizations sent a letter to Congressional leadership urging them to include the funding in a separate reconciliation bill.
“President Biden promised economic recovery would be equity-based,” said Andy Van Kleunen, the director of the National Skills Coalition. “Vocational training should be part of that answer.”