The $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will spur good-paying construction jobs and draw more workers to the industry, said Labor Secretary Marty Walsh at a Washington Post-sponsored online event on Thursday. But to capitalize on the opportunity, further workforce development is needed to bring people into the trades.
Walsh said he doesn’t expect the much-decried construction labor shortage to impede IIJA rollout. “[The infrastructure act] will create millions of new jobs all across America on the construction side but also long-term permanent jobs as well,” Walsh said. “I don’t think we’ll have trouble finding workers for these particular projects. I think these projects will create jobs, good middle class jobs, good-paying jobs.”
Walsh called for new pathways to bring in workers who have historically been shut out of the field, including people of color and women. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who also spoke at the event, agreed about the need to build a pipeline of workers and said training initiatives should begin in high school and include private sector partners.
Walsh talked in detail about how to bring more people into the trades. Construction can provide career advancement and economic opportunities sought by those working in hospitality or at desk jobs who want better opportunities, he said.
“We don’t need to find welders, we need to find people who are interested in the industry of welding or truck driving or whatever the industry might be, and I think we need to open up doors and create pathways,” Walsh said. “These construction jobs that we’re talking about, this infrastructure money, is over a 10-year period, so we have real opportunities to get young people into the construction field.”
Walsh expects more people to transition into the building industry, echoing Hogan’s comments on workforce development. He said construction must become welcoming to those its historically shut out, and suggested education initiatives to get young people interested early. For example, high schools should consider restoring shop classes and prioritizing STEM.
The Labor secretary said that the law will create other types of jobs related to building, such as architecture and technical work. Walsh also expects many employees in the fossil fuel industry to seek new jobs as the country shifts to renewable energy. Construction is a natural transition for them.
Finally, Walsh said, it’s vital to create the right work culture and pay good wages.
“This is not simply about filling a shortage of workers, it’s about creating a pathway into the middle class, and historically construction has been one of those pathways,” said Walsh.
What the IIJA will build
So far the law has created about 4,300 projects around the country in the six months since it passed, according to the White House. In a press briefing on May 16, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said “an infrastructure decade is very much underway.”
Still, it may take a little more time before the impacts of the infrastructure act become visible.
“When you think about the infrastructure law, there’s a little bit of delay between the time when we make the investment [and when] we get the money out to cities and states and towns across the country,” Walsh said. “We’re not going to see the whole process going for about another six to eight months.”
Hogan expressed excitement about the IIJA, and said it will accelerate hundreds of infrastructure projects in the state like the Port of Baltimore, BWI Airport, the Purple Line, Beltway upgrades and the American Legion Bridge. However, he said it’s important to temper expectations about what the infrastructure act will be able to accomplish.
“There’s no question with the supply chain crisis that we’re faced with, with the labor issues that we just talked about, that the costs of some of these projects is going up dramatically,” Hogan said. “We’re going to have to scale down the expectations for how far this money is going to go.”