The infrastructure bill creates more need for workforce training
As the Senate gets closer to passing its $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, we hear little about an important implication of the bill: the rising demand for skilled construction and manufacturing workers that it will create.
The bill finances a broad range of new construction activity — including the repair of roads and bridges, updating the nation’s electrical grid and water pipelines, rebuilding airports and waterways, and financing mass transit. These actions will require a range of skilled construction workers, on top of the manufacturing workers who will be needed to produce the equipment and materials needed to construct the new infrastructure.
What do the employment numbers in these industries look like right now? In the over 20 million construction and manufacturing jobs in the U.S. today, turnover and vacancy rates are already high, with over 700,000 workers leaving them in the most recent monthly data and over 1 million jobs vacant. Retirements among Baby Boomer employees will likely increase these numbers over the next few years, especially in the skilled construction trades.
How will we meet the growing need for workers in these industries? Rising wages might help these industries attract and retain more workers, though they will not generate the new skills such workers will need; and informal on-the-job training will likely not suffice to generate the very specific construction skills that will be needed for such work.
The roughly 200,000 registered apprenticeships in construction (mostly) and manufacturing today do not come close to meeting the growing demand such workers will face. Certificate programs to generate more such workers at community and technical colleges will need to attract more students and offer more teaching capacity, though such programs already tend to be woefully underfunded; and those in for-profit colleges are expensive and generate high default rates among student borrowers.
Of course, the coming demand for construction and manufacturing workers adds to a broader need for more skills training that already exists in the U.S. Over 4 million workers have now been unemployed for more than 6 months, and the vast majority of them permanently lost their former jobs during the COVID-19 recession. Others suffering permanent job loss have left the labor force altogether.
And the millions of workers who are leaving or turning down low-wage employment in retail trade and leisure/hospitality will also need new skills training to get the better-compensated jobs they now want. Indeed, the creation of so many well-paying jobs by the infrastructure bill provides us with the best opportunity in years to lift the pay of American workers without college degrees — including women, people of color and the current disadvantaged — if we can successfully train them for the opportunities now at hand.
How will the U.S. finance such skills training and other workforce services? While the Biden administration proposed $100 billion in new training (over eight years) in its American Jobs Plan, the summaries of the bipartisan infrastructure bill released to date are mostly silent on the need to train more workers for the jobs it will create.
That means that any major new funding for workforce training would have to be allocated through the “reconciliation” bill that Democrats are now planning, and without any Republican support. While the proposed $3.5 trillion in funding for this bill would no doubt finance some workforce activities, that amount appears well above what Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are likely to accept. The battles over how to spend smaller sums will be fierce, and pressure to reduce the amount allocated to workforce services and training will be profound.
In addition, the reconciliation bill will not allow for the passage of any new workforce legislation, and will require the use of existing laws — like the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) or the Higher Education Act (HEA) — to finance new training activity, though neither are ideally suited for these purposes.
Thus, it would be best to add some substantial new job training funds to the bipartisan bill, though it is late in the process to create new legislation to do so. Alternatively, Democratic senators who have taken the lead in the past on workforce training — including Patty Murray (Wash.) and Tim Kaine (Va.) — should commit now to making funding for workforce training a top priority in the reconciliation bill.
With the apparent creation of hundreds of thousands of new and well-paying jobs in the U.S., and with millions of workers already needing such training, our legislators need to make workforce training the top priority that it deserves to be.
Harry J. Holzer is LaFarge Professor of Public Policy at Georgetown University and a nonresident senior fellow in Economic Studies at Brookings.