Will Trump infrastructure plan include one million missing apprentices?

By Kermit Kaleba, January 25, 2018

On January 30, President Trump will offer his second “State of the Union” address. Among other things, he’s expected to use the opportunity to outline his case for a new federal investment in infrastructure. It will mark a return to a favorite theme from the 2016 campaign – where he repeatedly promised $1 trillion in new infrastructure investments – and, given his historically low approval ratings, a chance to lead on an issue that has strong public support.

One thing we’re going to be watching is whether he’ll clear up the mystery of the one million missing apprentices.

Earlier this week, a number of news outlets reported on a leaked memo that outlined some of the key “funding principles” of the administration’s infrastructure plan, including new infrastructure “incentive” grants for state and local governments, funding for rural infrastructure projects, and other priorities. However, the memo made no mention of investments in the skilled workforce that would be needed to support these projects – which is puzzling, because back in June the administration released a short set of infrastructure principles that clearly identified a goal of supporting one million apprentices over two years.

There’s a good case to be made for new public investments in roads, transit, and other infrastructure projects. Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s overall infrastructure a D+ based on capacity, condition, resilience, and other factors, highlighting the economic and public safety risks associated with a long history of deferred maintenance and neglect. A major new investment in infrastructure would help the U.S. keep up with our international competitors, and would also help our economy grow: one recent estimate indicated that a $1 trillion investment would create as many as 11 million new direct and indirect jobs.

But as NSC has argued, we can’t just invest in physical infrastructure and hope the jobs take care of themselves. If we’re going to take full advantage of this potential opportunity, we also need to invest in our human capital to ensure that workers have the skills they need to fill these jobs, and employers can find the workers to stay on schedule.

Nearly half of all the jobs that would be created by a $1 trillion infrastructure package would require some form of postsecondary education or training, meaning that our community colleges, apprenticeship programs, and other training providers would need to significantly ramp up to make sure we had the skilled workers to meet new demand. And that’s just to address new demand; a 2015 government report indicated that we need to increase our infrastructure workforce by 4.6 million workers by 2022 just to keep pace with current and projected hiring needs – a gap that would be exacerbated with major new federal investments.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s record on skills hasn’t been very strong: in his most recent budget proposal, the President proposed huge cuts to job training programs, and while he has talked about the importance of apprenticeship, his Department of Labor still hasn’t announced how it will use more than $90 million in federal funds Congress set aside for this proven strategy last year. The administration also has not done much to ensure that communities hit hard by natural disasters – from Houston to Florida to Puerto Rico – have the construction and other infrastructure workers they need to rebuild.

Fortunately, there are some bipartisan solutions that could address these shortages and help ensure that infrastructure investments are coupled with new funding for targeted training. The BUILDS Act, introduced last year by Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) would provide dedicated funding to partnerships between infrastructure employers, community colleges, and other stakeholders to ensure that any project receiving federal funding also has the resources to upskill workers and keep projects on track. The BUILDS Act is particularly focused on apprenticeship and other work-based learning strategies – which would right in line with the administration’s one million apprentice goal.

Let’s hope that the President follows through on his commitments to expand job opportunities as part of his infrastructure proposal, and works with Congressional leaders to lift up ideas like the BUILDS Act. We’ll be watching on Tuesday!