The Human Side

INFRASTRUCTUREThe construction industry needs to train people to build infrastructure.   

By Peter Dyga

The United States has a $2 trillion, 10-year deficit in its infrastructure investment. Those numbers, from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), reflect how far we have fallen behind in maintaining and upgrading our transportation, water and school systems. However, money and time tell only part of the story – we need to train people who will construct roads, water treatment systems, buildings and beaches.

The ASCE identifies coastal areas, schools and transit as among Florida’s greatest needs. To meet those, we will need people such as tile setters, masonry builders and gaiters, as well as drywall hangers, electricians, plumbers and welders.

When government and the private sector commit to meeting our infrastructure deficiencies, we will have twice as much work as people. It will be very challenging to find enough skilled workers. The Association of Builders and Contractors can train an entry-level painter or mason to perform basic work within a year, but for an electrician who performs advanced, two-phase electricity and running control boxes and circuits, it will take well over a year.

The lesson: Unless we start training more workers now, even when the funding is there, the projects will take longer and be more expensive because of a shortage of skilled workers.

Workers Needed

We already have a shortage of construction laborers with basic and advanced skills, and the situation is likely to get worse. A national survey of construction firms found that 82 percent expect it will be difficult or harder to recruit skilled workers this year, up from 76 percent of firms that gave the same response in 2017.

Companies often call us saying they need a third or fourth-year apprentice or a journeyperson. We do our best to help them, but frankly they are hard to find because times are good and workers with those skills don’t just fall off a tree. Construction firms must start investing now in their employees. Maybe in two or three or four years, we will start to reap the fruit of their classroom and on-the-job training.

Some workers can be ready sooner than others. Every project from an airport to a school to an interchange needs landscaping. If government and private-sector spending doubles, we will find it relatively quick and easy to find entry-level landscapers and teach them how to put foliage where the supervisor or the foreman says. We cannot do the same within six months or a year when it comes to wiring a school, airport or water treatment plant.

The same applies to roads. To build highways and streets, we need people skilled in operating trucks and cranes, and in laying and assembling the giant pipes that run alongside. Heavy equipment operators take three to four years to train.

A Group Effort

Infrastructure projects will take longer to complete and may cost more because of a worker shortage. A government project many find no bidders because contractors already have full schedules on other projects. A new bridge or school might start the next year or the year after, or it might be canceled altogether.

Bids on a project might also be 150 percent more than expected. Contractors may like a government project because it is publicly funded, but will have to charge more because they will have to offer higher wages to attract the workers needed to complete the job. 

We can address the problem through greater investment in the people we need to bring Florida’s infrastructure from the C grade it received from ASCE in 2016 up to an A. First, the construction industry must improve the skills of its employees. Companies that expand their capacity to perform high-level work can charge more for their services, so every dollar spent in an Associated Builders and Contractors training program brings back much more than that in return.

Second, we must do more as an industry to promote quality career paths in construction. We have student chapters at Florida International University and Florida Institute of Technology. We need to do the same at the high school level by removing the stigma of not going to a traditional college. For many young people, it’s better to get a four-year degree from a different program, which is where 60 percent of the jobs of the future are.

At Associated Builders and Contractors, we’re spending a lot more time on that today than we were five years ago, sponsoring programs at high schools. Every eighth grader in Broward County learns about the opportunities and construction from entry to owning their own company. We also have a campaign to contact every high school guidance counselor in South Florida.

It will take a group effort – professional organizations like ours and members of private industry to grow the construction workforce to take on the monumental improvements to our infrastructure. When government and private companies commit to the improvements needed to secure Florida’s future, the industry must be ready. 

Peter Dyga is the president and CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors’ Florida East Coast Chapter.

 

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