The roads and bridges construction industry needs more workers

Feb. 2, 2022

This column published as "Help Wanted" in February 2022 issue

The labor shortage is not a secret.

It’s been an issue for years, and according to a recent survey conducted by Trimble Viewpoint, a construction software company, filling open positions has become one of the biggest concerns throughout the industry.

Concern might be an understatement given the numbers. There were 321,000 unfilled construction jobs as of last summer, according to the Department of Labor. It is estimated that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which was signed into law by President Biden in November, will add 2 million jobs a year for a decade.

Unlike my dad, who was a banker for over 30 years, I’m not a math wizard. However, I’m fairly certain those numbers add up to the industry facing a serious problem.

If there isn’t a wave of new employees to the industry, the completion of projects that are crucial to improving America’s roads and bridges could be delayed.

Recently, I spoke to Craig Lundskog, finance director/controller at Great Basin Industrial in Utah. He said that labor shortages weigh heavily on him and his team. He described it as hitting each region of the country differently. He added that it’s currently a serious concern in Texas and other states along the Gulf of Mexico. The labor shortage “is going to hold up projects,” he said.

Lundskog believes employees with a skilled trade are needed the most. “Being able to work in an industry, knowing how to do that craft, and having the talent to do that craft definitely is where the shortage lies,” he said. “We don’t have that backlog of people learning how to do that craft.”

He added, “We have a big shortage of welders.”

A multipronged solution will be needed to fix the labor shortage. Since this impacts the implementation of the IIJA, the government might want to partner with the private sector to hatch a plan.

A coordinated recruitment campaign and a public relations strategy could help. But the long-term solution resides in our educational system: Getting more students into high school shop classes, and then urging the talented ones to enroll in technical college.

When I was in high school in the 1990s, shop class was not popular, and teachers pushed going to a four-year college as the best way to succeed in life. And not only is that untrue, but it’s bad for the country.

Lundskog said that Great Basin Industrial has a program where they interact with high school students in rural Utah. There needs to be more of this outreach, and not just to rural areas. Urban areas need that same kind of outreach. Diversifying the roads and bridges construction industry is key to its survival.

My conversation with Lundskog will be up on our website soon as part of our “Zooming in on Infrastructure” series.

I’m looking forward to interviewing more people for this series about the IIJA. So please reach out to me if you want to talk or know someone I should interview.

About The Author: Jenkins is managing editor of Roads & Bridges.