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Biden Has Ambitious Infrastructure Plans. But A Worker Shortage Could Hinder Them

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

President Biden is trying to get the economy back on track. The vaccine mandates he announced this past week are part of that because the economy cannot be revived while this pandemic is still raging in the way that it is. The second part, though, comes in the form of the infrastructure bill, but there are headwinds there, too. Even if it becomes law, some are flagging the shortage of skilled infrastructure workers as a serious challenge ahead. Worker shortages persist across different sectors of the economy, but in the trades, they were a problem even before the pandemic. Joining us now to talk about this is Andy Van Kleunen. He is the CEO of the National Skills Coalition, which advocates for worker skills training. Thanks so much for being with us.

ANDY VAN KLEUNEN: Good to be with you, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I understand that in your position you work with businesses, workers, colleges, community organizations - across the gamut. What are you hearing when it comes to the ability of infrastructure employees to find workers?

VAN KLEUNEN: We were having trouble finding skilled workers for construction jobs, water and energy utilities, telecom and broadband expansions - all the areas where we think this infrastructure bill was going to be investing even before the pandemic. What we're particularly concerned about now is that now as we're moving forward, we're talking about making significant investments and creating new jobs. Not only are there local employers who can't find folks for the jobs they currently have open, there's no way that we can actually get this up to speed unless we have a plan to train people to be part of that solution.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, your organization, along with others, recently wrote to congressional leadership asking for serious investment in workforce development. That had been initially proposed by President Biden, but it was left out of the latest version of the bill. I mean, that must be a concern.

VAN KLEUNEN: For sure, right. President Biden proposed $100 billion. It seems to be a relatively small amount of money to spend to make sure that as we're creating these new jobs through infrastructure that we're going to make sure that we're actually training people for those positions, particularly for the folks who have been so impacted by this pandemic. The president got that. He put that investment in his infrastructure package. The Senate decided to take it out and said that we would deal with it once we get to this larger reconciliation budget bill that the House is currently looking at.

We're quite concerned that once that bill goes back to the Senate and people are talking about making it smaller - once they start looking at the kinds of things that they're going to take out, the workforce training investment is certainly a targeted thing for elimination or significant reduction. And that makes no sense. It makes no sense for the industries who can't find workers. And it makes no sense if we're truly committed to helping people impacted by this pandemic.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, is part of the problem also that young people want a four-year degree - that is seen as the way to, you know, success in this country - and they just aren't as interested as they used to be in going into the trades?

VAN KLEUNEN: I think that's true for some young people, but there are a lot of young folks who - particularly as they're looking at the amount of debt that people are incurring as part of their college going without any great employment prospects coming out of that - a lot more people are looking at how is it that they can get into something like manufacturing or construction or transit? They're not dirty jobs the way that they used to be. They're hard jobs, but there's a lot of digital literacy and digital skills that's required. There's, you know, computerized labs, and tech and things like that. It's actually a pretty attractive job.

The challenge is that we don't make it easy for young people coming out of high school to get into some of that training. There's a lot of guidance counselors that are telling them how to fill out their FAFSA to get into college, but they're not telling them how is it that you can get into an apprenticeship or a pre-apprenticeship program here with the local trades to get into those kinds of jobs. So we need to change how the education system talks to our young people, but we also need to create some wider avenues of opportunity for them as well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Last question - if this infrastructure bill passes, are you concerned that it won't perhaps have the impact that it could simply because there aren't the workers to do the job?

VAN KLEUNEN: Absolutely. There is not an available, skilled construction worker out there. They're all working. They're working overtime. And if we don't have a workforce strategy in place now and expect local areas to put that into how it is that they're putting out bids for these projects, we're not only going to find that these projects are going to take much longer than we thought to get off the ground, we're going to have no plan for how it is that we're going to be maintaining these water utilities and broadband systems and bridges and roads into the future because we will not have a set of folks who are prepared for long-term careers in that sector.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Andy Van Kleunen with the National Skills Coalition, thank you so much.

VAN KLEUNEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SZYMON'S "FEENICKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.