Rebuilding our Workforce

If you know me, then you know two things I am really passionate about are rebuilding our infrastructure and preparing our future workforce. The U.S. Dept. of Transportation has new pilot programs in place set to impact both. A similar program was in effect back from 2015 until 2017. Let’s take a look at what the new one looks like today.
In May, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced expanded construction hiring and workforce development pilot programs, which will be managed by the department’s FHWA (Federal Highway Admin.) and FTA (Federal Transit Admin.). Both programs will give contracting agencies flexibility to use hiring preferences to enhance workforce development opportunities for those in economically or socially disadvantaged communications.
Let’s narrow in on FHWA’s program first—called the Enhancing Workforce Development Opportunities Contracting Initiative. The object here is to rebuild the skilled workforce needed to improve the nation’s transportation infrastructure. The four-year pilot program will enable state transportation agencies and contractors to better recruit qualified construction workers, which can be challenging in many parts of the country.
For the FTA, its initiative—called the Equitable Economic Recovery and Workforce Development Through Construction Hiring Pilot Program—is a four-year pilot program that will allow transit agencies to use geographic, economic, or other hiring preferences on FTA-funded construction projects.
Here is what I like. It aims to help transit agencies implement best practices to hire new employees to support advanced technology initiatives, including electric buses and high-speed rail. But is this enough?
The AGC (Associated General Contractors of America), suggests the problem with the local hire programs is that they solve the symptom and not the problem. The CEO of the AGC Stephen Sandherr issued a statement following the DOT’s announcement.
Here is part of Sandherr’s statement: “Our members are desperate to hire workers and would love to hire local employees where they do business. But too many communities have defunded their career and technical education programs and as a result there are often too few local workers with any interest in construction careers or basic skills that would make them qualified to be hired. Local hire programs let communities off the hook for failing to provide sufficient career and technical education options to meet employer needs. As a result, we have seen some local hire programs where 80% of people hired from local communities choose to leave the job before the project is even finished.
“If this administration shares our goal of elevating more people into the middle class via construction careers, then the best path would be to significantly boost investments in career and technical education programs so we can expose more students to the fact that construction is a viable career choice, and one that pays very well.”
If we want that better tomorrow that I keep talking about, we need to build new, innovative infrastructure, while also maintaining our existing infrastructure. We need to make it smart and sustainable. We need to make it resilient—and we need to do all of this while leveraging technology and a savvy workforce that is committed to construction. It all starts with our workers.
We need to rebuild our infrastructure—and we need the people to do it. Here’s hoping these programs will be a step toward rebuilding our transportation and our cities for the future.