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The program subsidizes child care in an effort to bring more workers into the construction trade.
State and local governments are racing to find more workers to meet the Biden administration’s push to build more roads, bridges, broadband and semiconductor chips. But limited and often expensive child care is hampering those efforts. A program in Oregon could be a model for other governments struggling with the problem.
The child care question is a key one, said Marina Zhavoronkova, a senior fellow for workforce development at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. A workforce is needed to create the infrastructure called for in the infrastructure law and the CHIPS and Science Act, she said.
Zhavoronkova noted in a report in March that preliminary estimates showed there were 413,000 openings in the construction industry in December. The manufacturing industry was short another 764,000. Additionally, 22% of construction workers and 26% of manufacturing workers are 55 or older and approaching retirement and will have to be replaced.
Dealing with the nation’s shortage in child care is key since women make up just 4.2% of workers in construction jobs, such as carpentry, brick masons, operating engineers and pavers. The act creates 800,000 new jobs in the coming decade.
“A really critical part of growing the workforce is that you need to recruit more members,” Zhavoronkova said. “And that includes recruiting more women who are more likely to be the primary caregivers for children in the home.”
A recent survey by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found that 27% of all people who are not working say they aren't looking for work because they need to provide care at home. Child care is a problem for both male and female parents. But a higher percentage of women (36%) cited it as a problem.
“It’s just like any job,” said Cye Fink, workforce management director for the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Office of Civil Rights. “If you have to pick up your child or they're under school age or kindergarten, then you can't really watch or provide for that child [while building new roads and bridges]."
Particularly, Fink added, because the job involves working in other parts of the state from where they and their children live for weeks at a time.
But a program in Oregon started seven years ago looks to address these issues.
In 2016, the Oregon Legislature passed a law requiring the transportation department to spend .5% of federal funds–up to $2.1 million every biennium—on an apprenticeship program to train people to become highway construction workers.
The department allocated a small amount for child care. Between July 2019 and December 2022, the department spent $340,027 on child care services for 75 apprentices so that they did not have to pay more than 7% of their income on child care, Fink said.
The money does not have to go to child care centers. It can be given to family members and relatives willing to look after a child. The state’s program also provides aid to pay for financial hardships like car repairs or medical costs.
The money has had an impact. In the last two years, apprentices who received the help were, depending on their trade, 10% to 20% more likely to complete their apprenticeships, Fink said. The impacts are even higher among women doing apprenticeships to work in highway construction.
About 45% of white women who received subsidies completed their apprenticeships, compared to 28% of white women who did not get subsidies (because they did not apply for them). And about half of the women of color who received the aid completed their internships compared to 22% who did not receive the aid.
Fink said Oregon will use $3 million of its infrastructure funds to expand the subsidies to more apprentices and for longer periods of time.
More state transportation departments haven’t followed suit, according to Zhavoronkova, because they are primarily focused on building and maintaining roads and bridges.
“It's a different muscle to flex for many states,” she said. “State departments of transportation—they’re not workforce agencies. They're not child care agencies. So it’s a big ask. It's learning a different skill set, it's partnering with different partners.”
Some officials have also argued that using transportation dollars on child care would take money away from the projects.
But making Zhavoronkova “cautiously optimistic” that more states will prioritize providing child care for infrastructure workers is the attention the Biden administration is putting on the issue.
The administration recognized the importance of dealing with the issue when the Commerce Department, in February, set out requirements for seeking CHIPS and Science Act subsidies. Those hoping to get more than $150 million will be required to provide workers with affordable child care, the department said.
“This is a math problem,” Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said at the time. “We need more people in the labor force. We have a lack of affordable child care, which is the single most significant factor keeping people, especially women, out of the labor force.”
In addition, Zhavoronkova noted that the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration is requiring that states seeking broadband funding from the bipartisan infrastructure act come up with a workforce development plan.
“I think that if there was any moment in time where the infrastructure workforce would meaningfully diversify is right now,” she said.
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty.
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