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Where did the workers go? Construction jobs are plentiful, but workers are scarce

An ironworker scales a column during construction of a municipal building in Norristown, Pa. on Feb. 15, 2023.
Matt Rourke
An ironworker scales a column during construction of a municipal building in Norristown, Pa. on Feb. 15, 2023.

When President Biden inked the $1 trillion deal to give roads, bridges and transit systems a boost, union officials and business leaders said a large scale investment in infrastructure was long overdue.

But nearly a year and a half later, and about a third of the way through the funding's lifetime, economists and hiring managers point out that all that infrastructure money won't do any good if there aren't enough people qualified to do the work.

Where have all the workers gone?

The construction industry faces a dire labor shortage. The number of construction job openings jumped by 129,000 in February, even as hiring decreased by 18,000, according to a report from the Labor Department released Tuesday.

That stands in contrast to the overall job market, where total job openings dipped to 9.9 million in February (down 632,000 from January).

Even with more money to repair rundown roads and build new bridges, worker shortages loom over an industry already strapped for people. And, with fewer workers, projects could take longer to complete, becoming more expensive as they drag on.

Construction labor shortage worsened by pandemic

The number of people actively applying for construction jobs online fell about 40% between 2019 and 2020 and has been flat ever since, according to Julia Pollak, an economist at ZipRecruiter.

Pollak said that's surprising partly because for many people, pandemic savings have run out and the issuance of work-eligible visas in the overall job market has recovered from the pandemic slowdown.

But, Pollak adds, the pandemic allowed workers to migrate out of jobs that require them to be on-site and into remote work, which often provides greater flexibility.

The pipeline problem

While the infrastructure bill set aside money for large-scale public works projects, it didn't directly set aside anything for training people to do them.

"I haven't used a dime of federal funding," said Sean Ray, a vice president overseeing training at Arizona-based Sundt Construction.

Sundt, a large general contractor, bankrolls construction training programs at a handful of local community colleges. Many of those students can be hired by Sundt right after they graduate and Ray said he met with state officials last year to discuss getting some of the federal money set aside for them.

"There's funding, but is it being spent in the right ways?"

Just 57 out of the 414 funding grants within the the Biden administration's trillion-dollar infrastructure bill were eligible to be used to fund workforce-related efforts, according to a tracker by the National Governors' Association analyzed by NPR.

Finding enough workers is going to become an even greater challenge for the construction industry in the coming years as older workers retire faster than younger workers can take their place, according to Ken Simonson, chief economist at Associated General Contractors of America.

The trillion-dollar infrastructure bill gave much-needed funding to big projects, he said, but now the burden falls on already stretched unions and construction firms to find workers in a tight hiring pool.

"What this legislation does is put the emphasis on getting firms to support and hire people coming through apprenticeship programs," Simonson said. "But it's not directly helping to create those programs."

There's a teacher shortage, too

For Nathan Barry, the dean of career and technical education at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska, planning to expand construction training opportunities began about a decade ago.

"We had so many people ready to retire, and we didn't have a good pipeline of people coming in," said Barry.

The school opened its own construction education center in 2017, where it teaches building, welding and other skilled trades. But now, waitlists to join those programs are long, and Barry said that's meant adding more classes at night, recruiting workers to teach part-time.

"In order to offer any type of hands-on training, there are really three components you need: You need the actual space; you need equipment that replicates industry, which can be expensive; and then you need that instructor that actually knows how to teach that stuff," Barry said.

"We've got to find a way to make construction sexy"

Finding qualified instructors to train up students interested in construction is another pain point, Ray added. Many construction education programs are taught by people without significant on-site experience because it can be tough convincing laborers to leave their jobs for lower pay.

"Who's gonna go teach a high school class for $50,000 a year when they can make $85 to $100,000 a year... in the trades?"

Support for woodshop and metal classes offered in high school disappeared in the early 2000s to make way for computer labs, Ray said.

And still, convincing people to take up construction, very physically demanding work, over a job working as a server in a restaurant or supermarket cashier where wages have also been rising, is challenging.

"That's the thing that we're not doing a great job with," Ray said. "We've got to find a way to make construction sexy."

A charge to find new recruits

And there are other restrictions in the president's infrastructure bill. In many cases, a project that receives funding needs to fulfill a quota of minority and women workers, which is difficult to do in an industry that's been traditionally dominated by white men.

Ray said that can be frustrating for companies like Sundt, where just 7% of its workforce are women.

"It's almost like we're putting up barriers to ourselves," Ray said.

But for others, the targeted funding to bring under-represented groups into construction is long overdue.

"Historically, it's, you know, not a person of color industry. It's not a woman industry," said Anjanet Banuelos Bolanos, a field agent for the Local 737 branch of Laborers' International Union of North America based in Portland, Oregon.

Bolanos, 44, helps represent fellow union members in disagreements with contractors, but she started her decade-long career as a construction laborer through an apprenticeship readiness program with the nonprofit Oregon Tradeswomen in 2011.

"I was a single mother with three children, and I was living in my parents' spare bedroom on a bunk bed," Bolanos said. "And I needed to make a change."

Funding from a 2009 Obama-era infrastructure bill had gotten a stream of bridge and rail projects on the road, and created a similar demand for labor, she said.

A few years later, Bolanos was able to purchase a home, and she credits that to the program aimed at recruiting more women in construction.

"This just levels the playing field for everybody," said Bolanos. "Because we're looking at these communities that have been historically at a disadvantage."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Yang
Mary Yang is an intern on the Business Desk where she covers technology, media, labor and the economy. She comes to NPR from Foreign Policy where she covered the beginning of Russia's war in Ukraine and built a beat on Southeast Asia, Asia and the Pacific Islands.
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