October 2022 Vol. 77 No. 10

Editor's Log

Editor’s Log: Is Anybody Out There?

Robert Carpenter | Editor-in-Chief 

(UC) — Where have all the workers gone? That’s a legitimate, important and critical question when it comes to the economic health of our country and, indeed, the world.

The national and worldwide economy is a very tricky thing that I can’t even pretend to fully understand. However, in all deference to the “remain calm, all is well” position of President Biden, two straight quarters of negative growth and the latest inflation figures remaining well over 8 percent sure seem like a recession to me. Our 401Ks and other savings have taken a massive hit this year from falling stock market values. 

On top of all that, the current political war on pipelines has not softened. In fact, the latest spending bill, ironically given the moniker of “Inflation Reduction Act” is not expected to provide any relief. The government’s General Accounting Office estimates the bill will either reduce or grow inflation by a minute negative or positive 0.1 percent. 

The bill did get a lot of environmental actions, if you’re into that kind of thing. But the real outcome is more deficit spending adding to our nation’s mountain of debt. 

Sen. Manchin’s “deal” to vote for that bill, in exchange for certain pipeline concessions – mainly allowing a pipeline to be build in West Virginia – embedded in the latest Continuing Resolution, ran into all kinds of political problems from both sides of the aisle. He withdrew his proposal for the time being. 

I could go on and on (admittedly, as I often do), but suffice it to say I’m very disappointed and concerned with the overall state of our nation’s economy. However, there is good news for underground infrastructure. Billions in infrastructure spending focused on sewer, water, fiber and the electric grid have been flowing from the federal government, courtesy of the Infrastructure Bill of late 2021, and will continue to do so until 2026. 

This has provided utility owners, contractors, consulting engineers and manufacturers with opportunities at a time they can really use them. Of course, inflation has eaten away at the value of the funding but, still, the amounts are so massive and heretofore nonexistent, that underground infrastructure will realize incredible value. 

Sure, the infamous post-COVID supply chain disruptions have slowed much of that work down. But as 2022 enters its fourth quarter, relief is slowly moving forward. In fact, the chip shortage has almost been solved. Products are beginning to roll again, and tentative projects are ready to get started – many already have. 

Sounds great for our industry, except for one ongoing, significant and lingering issue: lack of available workforce, skilled or otherwise. 

Workforce woes are a direct result of evolving employment opportunities brought about by new technology – even though unrelated to the construction/rehabilitation industries. The challenges are not a product of the pandemic. Rather, the COVID plague just accentuated an existing and persistent problem. 

Many experts believe the labor shortages started with the Millennial generation. As members of that group became of age to start careers, much ado was made about Millennials’ work habits. They were truly the computer and digital generation. Their concepts of a career frequently were at odds with traditional work directions and values. 

For many Millennials, the idea of working with their hands and tools, generally outside – even for high pay and benefits – just didn’t connect with their generations’ career ethos. 

Already tough before the pandemic, workforce challenges have only gotten worse since. COVID clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of many businesses in allowing employees to telecommute. Ironically, as the fiber buildout continues, new monies are largely going to rural or underserved communities – so even more people can enjoy the work-from-home lifestyle. 

Recently, the CEO of the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) said workforce shortages may undermine the potential benefits of new federal investments in infrastructure, manufacturing, and energy production. 

He urged public leaders to boost investments in construction-focused career and technical education programs to expose more current and future workers to the industry’s career opportunities. He also called for allowing more workers with construction skills to lawfully enter the country to help firms keep pace with demand. 

“In much of the country demand is beginning to outpace the supply of available workers,” said AGC CEO Stephen E. Sandherr. “Getting more people into high-paying construction careers will help modernize infrastructure, expand manufacturing and deliver greener, more reliable energy.” 

Clearly, the pressure is on to build out the nation’s infrastructure, but that’s easier said than done. Key underground infrastructure associations such as Distribution Contractors Association, Power & Communication Contractors Association, NASSCO and others have been actively working within their respective industries to raise awareness of its profitable and rewarding career opportunities. 

These groups have invested vast resources into the workforce challenge. There have been remarkable successes, especially with training programs and recognizing the specific needs of Millennials and now, Generation Z. 

Yet, it hasn’t been enough. Without bodies to fill the training schools, we still fall short of labor needs. The key to attracting younger people into respectable careers in underground construction remains elusive. We have to keep searching for answers – our country’s infrastructure is depending upon us.

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