President-elect Trump’s infrastructure plan may cause a skilled labor shortage, Reuters reports:
Earlier this year, the National Association of Home Builders estimated there were around 200,000 unfilled construction jobs in the United States, an 81 percent increase in the last two years.
Infrastructure projects need highly trained workers, such as heavy equipment operators and iron specialists. But as a result of the 2007-2008 recession, which caused an estimated 25 percent of construction jobs to vanish, their ranks have thinned.
Many of these workers went back to school, joined the military or got lower-paying jobs in retail, services and other sectors. Some just got too old for the rigors of construction.
“They wandered off into other careers,” said Leonard Toenjes, president of Associated General Contractors of Missouri, which represents contractors in the state.
Undocumented immigrants, who otherwise might help replenish those ranks, are unlikely candidates however, since companies do not want to invest in training people with an uncertain status, especially given Trump’s anti-immigrant bent.
Trump may want to borrow an idea from two candidates he defeated: Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio. Clinton and Rubio each wanted to increase vocational training in America. With college debt rising, less-costly technical schools are an especially attractive option. As the older generation of construction workers and craftsman retire, the urgency of finding a solution to this problem will increase. Moreover, if we see a rise in new home construction in the suburbs, the crunch will become even tighter.
Although we’re skeptical of some of the dire reports that are published by trade groups like the American Society of Civil Engineers, America’s infrastructure clearly needs repairs. Bridges and tunnels and roads and airports all would benefit from major capital investments. But one of the concerns to keep in mind as we prepare for four years of construction is that any massive government effort, particularly at a time when demand isn’t so depressed, could crowd out private activity. If all the capable skilled labor is being put on government projects (and, thanks to current federal law, paid at prevailing union wages in big cities), there won’t be many people left to build houses and private-sector buildings. Those who are left will command high salaries, which sounds like a good thing but could also discourage private firms from even building at all.
As Congress and the president-elect prepare for a big infrastructure push, they would do well to keep these issues in mind. Construction is a highly cyclical industry, and the federal government is preparing to get involved at a time when labor supply is low and private sector demand is rising. To avoid a major shortage, more skilled laborers will have to enter the market. It’s possible the private sector will produce such workers on its own, but the government may have to think about what it can do to encourage more vocational training in the meantime. There are millions of Americans who can benefit from higher-paying construction jobs. But someone needs to help them learn how to do the work.