Trump’s infrastructure splurge would collide with US labor crunch
President-elect Donald Trump’s drive to rebuild US roads, bridges, ports and other public works projects with a $1 trillion infrastructure investment plan would come as the country faces a shortage of skilled laborers. Before any dirt can be moved, Trump would have to get approval from Congress. But with Democratic support and a push from business groups, there is some optimism that Trump could win over skeptical Republicans who control Congress, if the plan does not add significantly to federal debt.
More than two-thirds of US roads are in less than good condition and nearly 143,000 bridges need repair or improvement, the Transportation Department estimates. At the same time, construction contractors have reported tight labor conditions in the South, Midwest and Southwest, causing project delays, the Federal Reserve noted last month.
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. The labor shortage is driving up construction costs, according to government and industry experts, which could cut into the scope of any new Washington investment scheme.
In response to the construction “skills gap,” the US Department of Labor and Federal Highway Administration are aiming to expand help to localities training workers for road and bridge building, according to a FHWA spokesman. Even if the scope of work is not as grandiose as Trump originally envisioned, it would benefit a range of businesses, from steel maker Nucor Corp and concrete firm US Concrete Inc to construction machinery companies such as Caterpillar Inc.
More infrastructure spending would boost trade unions, too, which appeals to Democrats. — Reuters