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Why Trump's $1 trillion infrastructure plan won't work

  • President Trump's infrastructure plan could create 4 million trades jobs.
  • Trump's border wall alone is expected to create 21,000 jobs.
  • A labor shortage for construction workers and skilled tradespeople could create huge cost overruns and delays for all those projects.
Construction crews conduct repairs on Broadway Street on April 25, 2017 in San Francisco, California.
Getty Images
Construction crews conduct repairs on Broadway Street on April 25, 2017 in San Francisco, California.

Conjure up a vision of a plumber in your mind. I know what you're picturing. It's the same one that probably every American sees of a guy, on hands and knees, halfway underneath a kitchen sink. You know the rest.

This image is pervasive. And it's at least partly to blame for the blue collar worker bias that stops kids from considering – and their parents from encouraging – jobs in the trades.

If even part of President Trump's plan to spend $1 trillion to upgrade America's infrastructure comes to fruition—potentially creating 4 million trades jobs in the process—the demand for skilled tradespeople to improve roads, highways, bridges, air traffic infrastructure, waterways and the electrical grid will skyrocket in the coming years.

But, America will never have the workforce it needs to meet the demand for skilled workers if we can't quickly debunk the myths surrounding the skilled trades, and get young people excited about a career in the trades today.

A 2016 report from staffing agency Adecco shows just how big the skilled trades job deficit is. At the time it was published, 62 percent of firms said they were struggling to hire skilled workers in the trades. With a disproportionate number of baby boomers occupying skilled trades positions—more than 5 million in 2016—who are due to retire over the next 10 years, an estimated 31 million positions will be open by 2020. Of those, electricians are among those in shortest supply because of their older demographic: more than a quarter working in the industry are at least 55-years-old.

Without skilled people to do the work, Trump's infrastructure plan may be dead on arrival.

And the job shortage would certainly make Trump's current plan to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico difficult to execute, since estimates project that a $12-$15 billion wall is expected to create 21,000 jobs—mainly for tradespeople during construction. A project like that would siphon the already low supply of skilled tradespeople away from other projects, and America could be looking at project delays, massive cost overruns and infrastructure plans that never materialize.

The consequences could be even worse when it comes to infrastructure projects in need of improvement and repair, like the recent Oroville dam crisis in California. The good news is that the skilled trades can be a financially sound and fulfilling career choice if we can get people past the misconceptions—and that plumber image—that have plagued the construction industry for so long.

Myth One: Salaries in the trades limit workers to a life of low wages with no room for advancement.

The truth: The average salaries for even the entry-level trade jobs are far above minimum wage. Salaries for the technical trades that require lengthy, specialized training are often commensurate with mid-level careers in high-tech. In San Francisco, a starting journeyman electrician makes roughly $128,000 per year after working a 40-hour week and taking two weeks of vacation, according to the local union serving the City of San Francisco, Local 6.

Myth 2: Tradespeople are often unemployed for months at a time during any given year.

The truth: Decades ago, tradespeople experiencing long droughts in employment used to be fairly common, especially in regions that deal with extreme weather. However, the relatively high hourly wage was originally calculated to take that downtime into account. But advancements in technology – everything from weather prediction to logistics planning tools – have chipped away at construction downtime.

Myth 3: Trades jobs are scarce.

The truth: The demand for skilled tradespeople is incredibly high. In February, there were 169,000 construction jobs unfilled in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And experts predict hundreds of thousands of more trades jobs will become available within the next decade as baby boomers retire. Jobs in the skilled trades ranked as the hardest vacancies to fill nationwide for the seventh year in a row again in 2016, according to ManpowerGroup's annual talent shortage survey.

Myth 4: That plumber under the sink image represents what life in the trades is like.

The truth: There are many jobs for tradespeople on large, commercial projects that provide the opportunity to work for headline-grabbing customers who are truly leaders in their field. Tradespeople are puzzling out the logistics, constructing the towers and operating the cranes that will change city skylines.

Myth 5: Everyone needs a college education to be successful.

The truth: While those with only a high school degree are twice as likely to be unemployed as those with a college degree, the stats don't tell the whole story. With hundreds of thousands of available jobs and free union apprenticeship programs that pay students while they learn instead of drowning them in college debt, trades jobs can provide a solid, long-term career path.

Commentary by John Boncher, president and CEO, Cupertino Electric, Inc.

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