One of the things President-elect Donald Trump did not stress during his successful campaign for the White House is the need for those who are out of work to be trained for new careers. In fact, it is difficult to find any example of Trump discussing skills training at all. Any mention of workforce development and craft training was absent from Trump's major speeches on jobs and the economy.
That is perhaps because his entire economic message – a message that resonated in states that made the difference for him in the Rust Belt – was centered on the idea that if you do not have a job it is because someone else took it from you.
Trump’s political argument went something like this: If you don’t have a job, it’s because an unfair trade deal sent your gig to another country or an undocumented immigrant stole the job that you would hold here in this nation if an “illegal” wasn’t doing it instead of you.
Skills training did not fit into that narrative simply because it would require people who are out of work to take responsibility for their lot in life rather than blame someone else. That's not to say there isn't a legitimate debate to be had about trade and immigration. But Trump campaigned in broad brush strokes about these issues. Nuance was scarce, but that is often the nature of campaigns.
That tough contest behind him, it will soon be time for Trump to govern.
Before and after Election Day, Trump has consistently talked about the need to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure in a major way. Mr. Trump's plan is to spend up to $1 trillion on roads, bridges, airports, and other critical infrastructure. Even if he can get Congress to agree to that, doing the actual work will be a challenge.
As Construction Citizen has reported over the years, there are major shortages of skilled workers in this country for a variety of reasons including a lack of training programs. We get some of the latest numbers via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
…construction contractors have reported tight labor conditions in the South, Midwest and Southwest, causing project delays, the Federal Reserve noted last month.
Earlier this year, the National Association of Home Builders estimated there were around 200,000 unfilled construction jobs in the United States, an 81 percent increase in the last two years.
Infrastructure projects need highly trained workers, such as heavy equipment operators and iron specialists. But as a result of the 2007-2008 recession, which caused an estimated 25 percent of construction jobs to vanish, their ranks have thinned.
Many of these workers went back to school, joined the military or got lower-paying jobs in retail, services and other sectors. Some just got too old for the rigors of construction.
"They wandered off into other careers," said Leonard Toenjes, president of Associated General Contractors of Missouri, which represents contractors in the state.
Undocumented immigrants, who otherwise might help replenish those ranks, are unlikely candidates however, since companies do not want to invest in training people with an uncertain status, especially given Trump's anti-immigrant bent.
Every reputable construction firm has a safety director but it’s rare to find a construction company with a craft training director. Some efforts to change this are starting to bear fruit.
In Houston, for example, the Construction Career Collaborative, or C3, is a private sector initiative aimed at correcting the problem through craft training as well as safety training. “For many of our trades, craft training does not exist,” said C3 Executive Director Chuck Gremillion during a recent event. Gremillion said “a vision for the future of the industry begins with craft training.”
That article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch put a fine point on the fact that there aren’t enough forward-thinking groups like the Construction Career Collaborative:
Harry Holzer, professor of public policy at Georgetown University, said fixing roads and bridges would boost U.S. productivity and, depending on how it is structured, generate good-paying jobs for those without college educations.
Given shortages of high-skilled construction labor, he said government ought to ramp up the projects carefully to allow time to train a new generation of skilled workers. "I'm not sure anyone has thought that through," he said.
For more information about the Construction Career Collaborative, go here.