Earlier this month, President Donald Trump met with Democratic leaders to discuss a topic that’s been mostly ignored since the president’s campaign promises to throw $1 trillion into fixing it: infrastructure. Reports are that they came away talking about an investment of twice that amount, the sticking point being, naturally, where that $2 trillion would come from.
In any case, a huge investment in our nation’s crumbling roads and bridges — not to mention new types of infrastructure, such as data bandwidth — would certainly be a welcome move. Not only are such investments sorely needed, but the construction industry that stands to gain greatly from such expenditures also desperately needs the boost.
Among the biggest issues for the industry is a lack of labor. Following years of reduced workloads — particularly for public and institutional projects — many contractors now are struggling to field enough workers to take on new jobs.
The dynamic is being felt locally, as described in a report last weekend by Sentinel staff writer Sierra Hubbard. In that report, municipal officials described putting projects out to bid and finding no firms willing or able to do the jobs within the provided budgets. Keene Public Works Director Kurt Blomquist noted having to ask the City Council for an additional $55,000 just to find a firm willing to take on making safety improvements to a crosswalk on Main Street near Keene State College.
“You’re finding a lot of (subcontractors) that don’t have enough manpower to meet some of their commitments,” said Don Wells, CEO of DEW Construction.
The issue extends beyond the Monadnock Region, however, making it more difficult to find those workers even outside of the area.
An Associated General Contractors of America survey found 86 percent of companies said they’re having trouble filling salaried and hourly jobs. More than 75 percent said they expect it to remain difficult to find those workers or that they expect it to become even harder. The National Association of Home Builders lists a labor shortage among its priorities and notes, among other factors, that immigrants account for a large segment of the labor pool — something not helped by the Trump administration’s crackdown on work visas and immigration in general.
Data released in 2018 showed unfilled construction jobs continue to rise. California, Florida, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and North Dakota are among states that have been hit with the labor crunch. The situation is exacerbated in regions with lower-than-average jobless rates.
In this region, where unemployment rates have consistently been below the national average for a decade or longer, many construction firms saw their labor pool dry up during the recession, as small contractors shut down and workers moved on to other careers. Now that the demand for those workers is returning, the question remains how to get them back, or replace them.
The answer, unsurprisingly, may be money. The Washington Post reported a year ago that firms in many of those states were turning to paying hefty bonuses — typically a move used by white-collar employers — to draw new blood.
In New Hampshire, efforts are underway to reward college graduates in certain fields who opt to keep their skills in-state. But many construction jobs, even in trades that require apprenticeships and licensing, aren’t the result of four-year college degrees. Perhaps more partnerships need to be forged between contractors and career centers/community colleges, as has occurred with manufacturers.
And yes, wages need to increase. Trade labor is demanding, sometimes dangerous work that young adults may not choose unless it pays well. But paying workers more, or offering hiring bonuses, drives up the cost of projects. That can mean fewer bidders able to compete for public projects within the approved budgets.
Blomquist says in a state with an aging population, his own department is filled with qualified workers, but many are nearing retirement age. Without replacements, the city could be looking at a much bigger issue than having to look outside the region to find bidders for contracted work.
Extend that scenario nationwide and it’s not hard to see a major infrastructure plan costing in the trillions.