Skilled workers are scarce, posing challenge to Biden’s infrastructure plans

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Skilled workers are scarce, posing challenge to Biden’s infrastructure plans

WASHINGTON — The infrastructure bill that President Biden gets through Congress is to create jobs and incentive projects for companies like Anchor Construction, which specializes in repairing old bridges and roadways in the nation’s capital.

But with enough young people aging out of the workforce of Baby Boomers and enough to replace them, John M., a senior vice president at Anchor. Irwin worries there won’t be enough employees for all those new projects.

“I would be surprised if there is a firm out there that is saying they are up for it,” said Mr Irwin, whose company is hiring about a dozen skilled workers, pipe layers and concrete finishers. If the bill passes Congress, he said, the company would have to double the amount it is hiring.

“We have to staff,” said Mr. Irwin. “And no, there are not enough skilled workers to fill these jobs.”

Mr Biden sees the $1 trillion infrastructure bill as a way to create millions of jobs, but as the country faces a severe shortage of skilled workers, researchers and economists say companies need to cut all those Positions can be difficult to fill.

The bill could create new jobs in industries critical to keeping the country’s public construction systems running, 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 US economy over eight years. But if there isn’t enough labor to meet demand, efforts to strengthen the country’s highways, bridges and public transport may backfire.

“Do we have a workforce ready now to look into this? Absolutely not,” said Beverly Scott, deputy chairman of the President’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council.

A recent US Chamber of Commerce survey found that 88 percent of commercial construction contractors reported a moderate to high level of difficulty in finding skilled workers, and more than a third had to put off work due to labor shortages. According to an estimate by Construction Industry Resources, a Kentucky-based data firm, the industry could face a shortage of at least two million workers by 2025.

The pandemic has exacerbated labor shortages, as sectors such as construction see a boom in home projects, with more people moving to telecom and the suburbs. Contractors have also faced supply crunch due to rising prices of products like wood and steel.

Job openings in construction have boomed after the sector lost more than a million jobs at the start of the pandemic. According to an Associated Builders and Contractors analysis, construction work openings have increased by 12 percent from prependemic levels. But according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are still about 232,000 jobs short in the sector as of February 2020.

The issue underscores a perennial challenge for skilled trades. Not enough young people are entering the sector, a concern for companies as older workers retire from construction, carpentry and plumbing jobs. And although many skilled trade positions have competitive salaries and low educational barriers to entry, the new generation sees a four-year college degree as the default path to success.

Infrastructure workers are older than average, raising concerns about workers retiring and leaving behind hard-to-fill positions. For example, the average age of construction and building inspectors is 53, compared to 42.5 for all workers nationwide. According to a Brookings Institution analysis, only 10 percent of infrastructure workers are under the age of 25, while 13 percent of all American workers are in that age group.

“The challenge is, how are we going to replace the many workers retiring or leaving jobs – not just grow, but replace?” said Joseph W. Kane, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Many people, especially young people, don’t even know these jobs exist.”

Community colleges that offer a variety of vocational training programs have faced a steep drop in enrollment. A recent estimate from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that community colleges were the hardest hit of all colleges, with enrollment falling by 9.5 percent this spring. According to the report, more than 65 percent of total undergraduate enrollment losses this spring occurred at community colleges.

Nicholas Kadavi, a third-generation mason who owns Nebraska Masonry in Lincoln, Neb., has seen his workload triple since April. He said that his company had already fixed the working time till June 2022.

He wants to hire more skilled masons to complete projects as quickly as possible, but can’t find enough people to fill the dozen open positions, even if he’s willing to pay up to $50 an hour. – Twice he had offered before the pandemic. He checks his email daily, waiting for more applications to come in.

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“My biggest struggle is finding people who want to work,” said Mr. Kadavi.

Even when he hears from applicants, Mr Kadvi said, he is unable to hire many of them because they are not sufficiently qualified. Even before the pandemic he was seeing a shortage of skilled masons, he said, and he worries the craft is “dying” because new generations aren’t chasing the field.

The country’s public transportation system will receive $39 billion under the infrastructure bill, allowing agencies to expand service and upgrade decades-old infrastructure. But transit agencies are dealing with staff shortages facing a shortage of bus drivers, subway operators and maintenance technicians.

The agency’s acting chief operating officer Brian Funk said Metro Transit in Minneapolis is trying to hire about 100 bus drivers by the end of the year. The agency had originally set a target of hiring 70 employees by the end of June, but it has met only about half of that target.

While he is optimistic that the agency will be able to fill those remaining positions once it ramps up efforts to promote the opening, he said he was still concerned about some workers leaving.

“We know that every day, there is a possibility that someone else is either looking at retirement or another job,” Mr Funk said.

Some are hopeful that policy makers will be able to scale up workforce development programs to meet the demand for the Infrastructure Bill. Projects could take several months to start, economists said, giving the country time to train workers who are not yet qualified.

“These problems are not insurmountable,” said Nicole Smith, chief economist at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “Not having a sufficiently trained workforce is something that can be addressed.”

But others are concerned that the bill is not enough to attract more people to the infrastructure sector, particularly historically underrepresented groups such as women and people of color. Although Mr. Biden originally proposed a $100 billion investment in workforce development, That money was omitted in the latest version of the bipartisan infrastructure bill. The funding would have invested in on-the-job training for people formerly incarcerated and created millions of registered apprenticeships, among other things.

Last week, the National Skills Coalition and more than 500 other organizations sent a letter to the Congress leadership calling for the funding to be included in a separate reconciliation bill.

“President Biden promised that the economic recovery was going to be based on equity,” said Andy van Kleinen, chief executive officer of the National Skills Coalition. “Work force training should be part of that answer.”

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