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It’s Going to Be Hard Finding Workers to Build Infrastructure

With historic funding for badly needed projects arriving at the same time as historic shortages of construction workers, what can states do to open up the employment pipeline?

Apprentices receive instruction in soldering and brazing.
(Seattle Area Pipe Trades Apprenticeship Program)
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will invest more than a half trillion dollars in American infrastructure over five years. It’s been estimated that this could create more than 3 million jobs in the construction workforce, bringing hundreds of thousands of new job opportunities every year.

But once federal funds start to flow, states could have trouble finding workers with the skills to achieve their transformational goals. As details of a “generational opportunity” were debated, and in the months since the infrastructure bill was signed, openings for construction jobs increased steadily and significantly.

“Job openings were the highest ever for April,” says Kenneth Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC). “If you go back month by month and compare to the same months in previous years, they’ve been setting records for five or six months in a row now.”

The April projection from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly half a million openings, is greater than the 20-year high of 438,000 reached in April 2019. While the number of construction jobs that need to be filled may be unprecedented, the demand for workers is a long-term problem, says Halene Sigmund, president and CEO of the Construction Industry Training Council of Washington (CITC).

CITC has been “building the people who build the Northwest” for nearly four decades. “I’ve been doing this for close to thirty years and it’s been the same,” says Sigmund. “The No. 1 concern of employers is finding a skilled workforce.”

Sigmund’s organization knows what it takes to produce such workers and accomplishes it routinely, as do other training and apprenticeship programs around the country. The question is whether proven strategies can be implemented fast enough to develop a workforce that will achieve the benefits infrastructure funding is intended to foster.
Apprentices learning techniques for cutting commercial pipe
Apprentices learn techniques for cutting commercial pipe. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2021 median annual wage for plumbers and pipefitters was nearly $60,000.
(Seattle Area Pipe Trades Apprenticeship Program)

Culture Building

PJ Moss, the apprenticeship coordinator for Seattle Area Pipe Trades (SAPT), runs a program that is currently training 550 workers for jobs in plumbing, pipe fitting, refrigeration and HVAC. It’s a “registered apprenticeship” program (RAP), a model first developed in the late 1930s to ensure apprentices weren’t simply exploited as cheap labor but were trained and given chances for career advancement.

RAPs exist in every state, overseen by the Department of Labor (DOL) and administered either by DOL or a state agency. In order to become “registered,” they must meet standards for program development and delivery. Apprentices are paid and can earn nationally recognized credentials.

SAPT, established in 1968, has set new records for candidates in its last six interview cycles, says Moss, better than it’s seen in the past 25 or 30 years. Part of that is a competitive wage package for apprentices, but SAPT also focuses on creating an open, inclusive culture. Workers who enjoy their jobs talk about them in their communities.

“Out of about 400 interviews we did in just the last couple of months during our application period, maybe 10 said they’d found us online,” says Moss. “The rest said they go to church with someone who told them about us, or their kid plays baseball with a guy or gal in our apprenticeship program.”

Training workers is one thing, but Moss believes keeping them on the job might be even more important. The average five-year retention rate for workers SAPT has trained is 95 percent. Recruitment strategies play a role in this; the average age of SAPT apprentices is 31.

In general, Moss finds that applicants who have already tried a career and didn’t enjoy it are most likely to embrace the opportunities he can offer. He’s not enthusiastic about prospecting at high schools. “A lot of my peers in the apprenticeship industry probably scoff at me for this, but the return investment is not there.”
A crew posing in front of two large heavy equipment vehicles.
The Construction Industry Training Council of Washington offers paid, on-site training in trades including heavy equipment operation.

Recruitment Opportunities

CITC currently works with almost 300 employers to provide registered apprenticeships in 11 construction trade crafts. At present, 1,400 workers are enrolled in programs that range from three to five years and are primarily “open shop” (non-union).

Sigmund sees big opportunities for recruitment. Like Moss, she finds that most people learn about apprenticeship through word of mouth, but her program staff are actively involved in going into high schools to talk about it. She’s seeing an increasing number of military veterans come into apprenticeships and invests in engaging with them.

“Pre-apprenticeship opportunities are right up there, probably second to word of mouth,” says Sigmund. Pre-apprenticeship programs provided by employers, educators or nonprofits can give individuals skills that will help them succeed in a RAP.

“We have preparatory programs housed in K-12 schools, in the two-year college system and many are supported by community-based organizations,” says Jody Robbins, apprenticeship program manager at the Washington Department of Labor and Industries. “We’ve built a lot of excitement and energy in that pipeline and our construction trade programs do not want for applicants.”

Bill Cooper, the director of diversity strategies for Atlantic Constructors Inc. (ACI) in Richmond, Va., highlights another focus for recruitment. Asians, Blacks and women are underrepresented in the construction workforce. “The opportunities lie for us to go out and educate them to the possibilities of a career in construction.”

ACI offers registered apprenticeships at its 130,000-square-foot fabrication shop. There’s a difference between diversity and inclusion, says Cooper. “Diversity is the mix, but inclusion is what makes the mix work — people want to be able to understand what’s possible for them, and that’s what I believe apprenticeship does.”

Apprenticeships that offer pay, a program element not limited to registered apprenticeships, are essential to inclusion and create an open door for applicants from all backgrounds, including mid-career workers who want a change but already have families to support.
An advertisement that says “construction is essential” next to a woman in construction gear.
Women make up just 5 to 6 percent of the construction workforce. The Associated General Contractors of America is using digital marketing to recruit them.

Construction Is Essential

State and local governments can help cultivate the workers their infrastructure projects need by paying greater attention to career technical education, says Brian Turmail, vice president of public affairs and strategic initiatives at AGC. “The vast majority of high school students and young adults looking to transition from one sector to another never hear about construction career opportunities.”

The AGC of Washington Education Foundation led the development of a construction industry-created curriculum, “Core Plus Construction,” to prepare students for entry-level construction jobs, apprenticeships or other post-secondary education. In 2020, the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction approved it and added it to its course equivalences, making it eligible for high school credits in math, science and language arts.

There’s a return for these kinds of public-sector investments, says Turmail. Worker shortages can delay projects and inflate their cost. If skilled workers are in short supply, contracts with mandates to hire local workers won’t solve the shortage — but they can further slow progress and put inexperienced workers at risk.

Women make up 51 percent of the overall workforce, but only 5 or 6 percent of the construction craft workforce. “If we can find more ways to attract women and African Americans into the industry, we probably won’t be talking about workforce shortages as much as we do now,” says Turmail. As a step in this direction, AGC launched a digital recruitment program with the theme “Construction Is Essential.”

Construction jobs pay well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in May 2021 the median annual wage for all construction trade jobs was $48,210, higher than the $45,760 median for all occupations.

There are many reasons why state and local officials have a vested interest in more people going to careers in construction, according to Turmail. “I’ve never brought my kids in to come look at a press release I’ve written and admire how wonderful it is, but I’ve yet to meet a construction worker who hasn’t taken a family member to show off the airport or highway they are building.”

Apprenticeships Equal Workforce Development

The potential for federal infrastructure funds to create actual employment and not just employment possibilities can be held in check by a shortage of skilled workers. But the fact that funds are coming, and in such large quantities, might provide enough energy to overcome this barrier.
A female construction apprentice.
AGC’s Brian Turmail: “Apprenticeships, community college training programs, private training programs, high school programs — we need it all.”
“That’s a positive signal we haven’t had in a long time,” says AGC’s Simonson. “We have a lot more money going into highways and other kinds of infrastructure; I hope that message will get to people who are considering a career or considering what sorts of career training programs they want to support.”

Cultivating skilled workers isn’t the only reason for the construction sector to put more work into developing training programs. “I tell people apprenticeship is a workforce development plan for their industry, and that’s really what it is,” says Sigmund.

AGC convened a National Construction Industry Workforce Summit in October 2021 at which workgroups shared and developed strategies for recruitment, training and development. “Apprenticeships, community college training programs, private training programs, high school programs, we need it all,” says Turmail. “It’s not one solution that’s better than the other. We need them all.”
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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