Trump infrastructure plan may have a hard time finding workers

After years of underfunding, the nation's aging infrastructure is about to get a massive investment in new and rebuilt highways, bridges, airports and other public projects, according to the president-elect.

Funding may be the easy part. With the U.S. job market approaching full employment, finding enough skilled workers to take on new projects could be much harder.

Construction companies are already scrambling to fill open positions. Some 221,000 construction jobs were open in September, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is more than four times the number at the start of 2012.

Some two thirds of construction contractors report having a hard time finding skilled workers, according to a survey earlier this year by the Associated General Contractors, a trade group. The shortages were most pronounced in the South and Midwest, where three-quarters reported having a hard time filling skilled job openings.

"These workforce shortages are not going to go away in the near future," said Stephen Sandherr, the group's CEO, adding that they have "the potential to undermine broader economic growth by forcing contractors to slow scheduled work or choose not to bid on projects, thereby inflating the cost of construction."

That's showing up in higher wages needed to recruit and keep construction workers. Nearly half of the contractors surveyed have raised base pay rates, and a fifth have boosted benefits or offered bonuses.

"We're having to dig harder and deeper to find truck drivers," said William Sandbrook, CEO of U.S. Concrete. "We've increased wages, and we've added quarterly bonuses, so it's in their interest to stay for the next three months."

Sandbrook said construction industry employers also "have to get creative." U.S. Concrete is recruiting drivers working with parole boards in a "second chance program" that places workers recently released from prison.

Decades of under-funding have left U.S. highways, bridges, airports, power stations, dams and waste treatment plants in need of a major overhaul. The American Society of Civil Engineers, which gives the country a D+ grade on infrastructure, estimates it will take some $3.6 trillion to bring it up to a passing grade

More recently, investment in American roadways became bogged down during multiple attempts on Capitol Hill to extend long-term funding for the Highway Trust Fund, which teetered on the brink of insolvency for two years. Despite rising costs of maintenance and construction, Congress hasn't raised the gasoline tax used to replenish the fund for more than two decades.

State and federal agencies are in the process of replacing the Governor Malcolm Wilson Tappan Zee Bridge (usually referred to as the Tappan Zee Bridge) over New York's Hudson River.
Andrew Holbrooke | Corbis | Getty Images
State and federal agencies are in the process of replacing the Governor Malcolm Wilson Tappan Zee Bridge (usually referred to as the Tappan Zee Bridge) over New York's Hudson River.

Late last year, with the highway fund running on fumes, Congress came up with a one-time, $70 billion cash infusion for road repairs with a series of accounting gimmicks, including shifting funds from the Federal Reserve, but it failed to create a sustainable source of long-term funding. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the money will run out in six years, and the fund faces a shortfall of some $100 billion by 2026.

More than 14 million Americans — 1 in 10 workers — build, operate or maintain roads, bridges, airports, railways and other infrastructure, according to an analysis by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program The workforce spans 95 occupations and 42 industries.

While construction jobs are the most visible, they make up only 15 percent of the infrastructure workforce. America's transportation network, power plants, water systems and the like are going to need even more workers over the next decade as the nation's aging facilities are repaired or replaced.

Committing funding for those jobs dovetails with another of Trump's major campaign promises — creating high-wage jobs.

Infrastructure workers are paid better than average, according to the Brookings analysis. Even workers in lower-paid infrastructure occupations earn 30 percent more than other sectors, it found. While some 12 percent hold a bachelor's degree or higher, workers generally need less education to qualify for these jobs.