Connecting state and local government leaders
Under a new program with the Labor Department, a dozen cities will work with federal experts to come up with plans to find much-needed infrastructure workers.
With the need for infrastructure workers about to explode as cities and states begin spending the billions of dollars allocated in recent federal laws, an association representing the nation’s cities is trying to deal with the existing shortage of workers in the industry.
The National League of Cities estimates that the U.S. has a shortage of 1 million construction workers. So in a partnership with the U.S. Department of Labor, the group is launching what’s called the Good Jobs, Great Cities Academy in an effort to find the workers needed to maintain the roads, bridges, buildings and water lines that will be built with the funds.
NLC and the Labor Department will pick 12 cities to work with federal experts from various agencies to come up with plans to find these workers.
“It's really a kind of a whole government approach,” said Michael Bartlett, program manager for postsecondary and workforce success at NLC. “This is going to be a very hands-on process with cities, where they're receiving active coaching and support from national experts.”
Cities have until April 28 to apply. In a sign of how great the potential interest is in the academy, Bartlett said 325 cities were part of an informational call with the association about the initiative last week.
In addition to individual cities, consortiums of cities who want to take a regional approach to solving the problem will also be considered, noted Stephanie Martinez-Ruckman, legislative director for human development policy at NLC.
In judging the applications, Bartlett said that the initiative will look for approaches that seek to diversify the workforce.
“What are the needs in your community that stand out? Whether that's engaging women in the trades or returning veterans, or folks with disabilities, or communities of color?” he said. “We want cities to be able to communicate, ‘Who is this for?’”
“A lot of times the barriers for workers, particularly those from underserved communities have less to do with skills and more to do with [the fact that] they don't have access to transportation,” Bartlett added. “They don't have access to child care, or maybe they're housing insecure.”
Applicants should also be partnering with others in the community, including workforce development boards and colleges, to come up with plans.
“Are they bringing their workforce board to the table? Are they bringing local businesses to the table?” Martinez-Ruckman said.
“We don't want communities to reinvent the wheel,” Bartlett said. “We want them to really dig into those issues. Our hope is that they will stand up new or expand existing programs that are going to directly connect people to jobs successfully.”
The end goal, Bartlett said, is to come up with models to help other cities deal with their worker shortage.
According to an NLC study, municipalities lost 4.5% of their workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. And even though cities have regained workers in the last year, they still have 267,800 fewer workers than they did before the outbreak
“Private sector employment recovered nicely but the public sector is still behind,” Bartlett said.
Hiring workers is particularly difficult when it comes to infrastructure, whether it be in the public or private sector. It takes a median of 23 days to hire someone for a job involving infrastructure, compared to 19 days for other kinds of jobs, the study said.
The problem is particularly acute in the Northeast. The study found that while it takes a median of 27 days to hire somebody for an infrastructure job in the region, it only takes 25 days in the West, 23 in the Midwest and 22 in the South.
Making the problem worse is that many infrastructure workers, who tend to be older white men, will retire in the coming years, the study said. A Brookings Institution report last December noted that 17 million infrastructure workers are expected to retire by 2031, which is more than the 16.6 million people employed in the sector last year.
The academy is among a number of initiatives by the Biden administration to address the shortage of workers. In broadband funding applications, for instance, states are required to submit workforce development plans. And when setting out requirements for those seeking CHIPS and Science Act subsidies, the U.S. Department of Commerce demanded that applicants provide workers with affordable child care.
The big issue cities will need to solve, Bartlett said, is the lack of training for new infrastructure workers.
There is a shortage of 1 million construction workers, the study asserts, in part because “there’s been a disinvestment” in training for skilled trades.
Carrying out the administration’s push to build infrastructure will “require a diverse, skilled, and ready workforce in cities, towns and communities across the county,” the Labor Department said in a statement to Route Fifty. The Department of Labor is laser-focused on ensuring all workers have equitable access to these opportunities—including women, workers of color, veterans, rural and dislocated workers, and workers who need second chances. The department understands that if we are to meet this moment to build our country back better, we cannot do it without partnerships at the federal, state and local levels.”
Indeed, part of the challenge cities will face isn’t just increasing training, but dealing with the barriers that keep certain populations from working in the industry.
“Equity will be a bedrock in the initiative,” Bartlett said.
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty, covering Congress and federal policy. He can be reached at email@example.com