Workforce Issues Front-and-Center in Congress

Workforce Issues Front-and-Center in Congress

April 29, 2022  | Robert Puentes and Katie Donahue

Last year, the President’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC) released a report concluding that the United States is ill-equipped to ensure a skilled workforce for its critical infrastructure. The consequences, the report found, are on par with those caused by natural disasters or physical or cyber attacks. The NIAC’s ultimate message: we need to get serious about developing and preparing our workforce.

However, poor, dispersed, and limited training opportunities coupled with few workforce pipelines tend to divert prospective transportation workers away from the sector. Women, for example, are highly underrepresented throughout the transportation industry. There are also stark race and ethnic disparities. For the transportation construction industry alone, African Americans comprised only 6 percent and African American women comprised less than 3 percent. By contrast, Latinos have a strong presence in the sector, though they are concentrated in jobs that pay below the median wage.

Federal support, both through annual spending as well as new authorizations from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), has the potential to be a great opportunity for American workers. However, it could also exacerbate existing transportation workforce challenges if not properly addressed. The $550 billion in additional federal spending from the IIJA will put significant pressure on both the public and private sector to recruit workers to deliver a range of capital projects.

Two U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee hearings this week dug into related, but different, transportation workforce needs. One by the Highways and Transit Subcommittee focused on the flexibility the public and private sector both need to craft solutions and the leadership role in many states.

Shoshana Lew, the Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Transportation noted that in 2016 the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) granted her state and nine others the ability to implement local hire preferences on its Central 70 Project. The $1.2 billion project winds through several Denver neighborhoods with high unemployment and set a goal of hiring 20 percent of the estimated 4,000 workers from the surrounding community. To engage residents in the area, CDOT constructed a training center and began offering courses and instruction to build basic skills of the residents. Lew noted that the first cohort to graduate all come from the community affected by the project.

Tunya Smith, the Director of North Carolina’s DOT’s Office of Civil Rights highlighted her state’s On-the-Job Training (OJT) program and how vital apprenticeships and other “earn while you learn” programs are to disadvantaged communities. Brent Booker, the North America’s Building Trades Union’s Secretary-Treasurer, also cited the importance of expanding its slate of registered apprenticeship programs that provide a “debt-free” career path since participants are paid to receive skills training. These programs operate without federal assistance as support comes from collective bargaining agreements negotiated by NABTU.

Smith also expressed her disappointment that there is no new money in IIJA for workforce development. States are, however, now eligible to obligate funds from four existing workforce programs for OJT-like pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs, as well as for engagement with workforce development boards to address gaps. She attributed North Carolina’s success in taking advantage of the federal programs and flexibility to the support she received all throughout the state, including the governor.

Booker noted specifically the importance of high-quality education and training given the inherently dangerous nature of many transportation construction jobs. This point was echoed by Kari Karst on behalf of the Associated General Contractors of America when she noted that, for example, she would not send out a twenty-person crew with all new people because she could not ensure their safety without requisite training. The flexibility to supplement new staff with experienced workers is critical to making local hire a success.

Karst also pointed out that in her experience in two rural states—South Dakota and Nebraska—the unemployment level is very low, about 2 percent in some places. She noted one problem, then, is making sure that local hire provisions not only result in short term job creation, but also provide opportunities to keep those individuals in the industry long term. Kelly Kupcak, the Executive Director of the Oregon Tradeswomen (on behalf of the National Taskforce on Tradeswomen’s Issues) pointed out deliberately providing opportunities for women and, in particular women of color, to access to high wage careers in transportation and construction is critical to ensuring long term stability in the industry.

April Rai, the new President and Chief Executive Officer of the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO) talked about the importance of setting goals to ensure participation from small, minority- and women-owned companies in transportation construction opportunities. Smith similarly pointed out the need for clear goals on professional services contracts. Some states do it and the federal government allows it, but most states do not have such goals. Rai noted that Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) officers need closer oversight by the federal government to make sure goals are met. One seemingly solvable problem is the lack of conformity in the size standards applied by federal agencies. She called for USDOT to adopt the standards set by the Small Business Administration, as the Federal Aviation Administration already does.

Workforce was also a main issue in a different hearing this week held by the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation on the U.S. Coast Guard’s FY23 budget request. Commandant Karl Schultz testified on his service’s staffing issues: the Coast Guard aims to recruit an additional 4,200 people, a difficult feat considering they already are having trouble attracting recruits. The service has a far smaller recruiting campaign compared to other branches. The recruiter to active duty ratio is far greater in the Coast Guard, meaning recruiters are more stretched, compared to other branches:

  • The Army has a 1:44 ratio (about 481,254 active duty, 10,900 recruiters)
  • The Navy has a 1:53 ratio (about 323,139 active duty, 6,100 recruiters)
  • The Coast Guard has a 1:137 ratio (about 43,000 active duty, 315 recruiters)

It is difficult to attract potential recruits without the critical mass (and name recognition) of the larger branches.

In addition to recruiting, retention of Guardsmen was another major theme. Unlike other branches, the Coast Guard does not have large military bases or large barracks for housing, and most Guardsmen live in the local community. Schultz and Master Chief Jason Vanderhaden spoke about the staggering housing prices Guardsmen are facing, and the resulting quality-of-life impacts as some are forced to live far from work to find places they can afford. Guardsmen are given a Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH), designed to “offset” but not “cover all” expenses. The cost of rental properties in the surrounding areas is supposed to be surveyed every year, but Vanderhaden recommended an overhaul of housing cost assessment, as many Guardsmen have complained of inadequate stipends compared to housing prices.

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