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OPINIONS: Bring back construction workers

Driving near the University of Arizona campus this summer? Here are some spots that may slow you down. Video by Victor Garcia Music Credit: http://www.purple-planet.com/upbeat/4593380163

There is nothing I love more than a smooth, freshly renovated road that makes even my humble minivan feel like it is a high-end piece of technology gliding through the city, held back only by air resistance and speed limits. And there is nothing I hate more than construction.

But life is about giving and taking, and if we want to take stable bridges, fresh pavement and pothole filling, we will have to give a couple of weeks or months to abysmally low speeds, single-lane roads and stop-and-start traffic. It is not easy, but it is necessary. And while it is important to remember the sacrifices we have to make for the luxury of adequate roads, it is also important to remember those sacrifices don’t have to be so steep.

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In Tucson alone, we are currently overseeing at least eighteen transportation projects, involving crews and contractors to renovate old roads or design entirely new ones to expedite our daily commutes, save us money in gas and lower the chance of accidents or other damage to our cars. This is a great sign that we have a city government interested in keeping Tucson up to pace with other cities around the country, not only in terms of roads but also pedestrian zones, bike lanes, access ramps for those with physical handicaps and more environmentally conscious irrigation systems.

But all is not well in the construction business in the United States. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave infrastructure in the United States a rating of D+ and called on massive investment and a shake up of how we grade whether or not roads, bridges, train tracks and electric grids fail or pass. Despite a growing need for workers, projects and ingenuity, we are falling behind in all three.

MarketWatch published an article reporting that the American construction field has not been able to keep up with sectors like agriculture and manufacturing, saying, “Over the past 20 years, productivity has grown at only one percent annually, only around one-third the rate of the world economy and only around one-quarter of the rate in manufacturing”. 

That number becomes especially shocking when you realize that agriculture has grown 1,510 percent in terms of cumulative real growth since 1947, and construction has only grown 6 percent. 

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Not only are we under-investing in construction projects, we are also experiencing a labor-shortage crisis that has begun to reach new highs in recent years. According to the National Association of Home Builders, 82 percent of builders said the cost and quantity of labor is their biggest concern going into 2017, a sentiment echoed by data released in 2018 showing unfilled construction jobs continue to rise.

The Washington Post reported this shortage of labor is being felt across the country and we have far too few people applying for much needed construction and blue-collar jobs to build roads and houses and provide transportation.

Even worse, in areas such as California, where those job openings are being filled, they bring with them other concerns. In Los Angeles, the once-heavily unionized construction force began being filled by more Latino workers emigrating from south of the border, who were paid less and encouraged not to unionize for better conditions. MarketWatch reported that American construction workers today receive five dollars less an hour in real wages than they did in the early 1970s, a major decline that explains the stunted increase in productivity of the American worker in the past few decades.

What can we do to help fight this labor shortage crisis on our doorstep? Encouraging the development of trade schools and supporting high school graduates who are entertaining careers in blue-collar fields such as construction, welding, plumbing or electrical engineering can help fill those gaps, as well as encouraging in-migration of workers across the country. According to Forbes, almost 40 percent of students entering a four-year college will not graduate, and even of those 60 percent who do, about 37 percent are currently doing work that only requires a high school diploma, regardless. 

Countries such as Germany see major increases in productivity thanks to their cutting-edge vocational school system, the Deutsche Welle indicated that 52 percent of Germans graduate from. If lawmakers decide to bring back the once-thriving vocational school system we used to have in this country, the large populations of recent immigrants can help as well, as long as we can see the return of unionization to see better conditions and wages.

If we can encourage a more productive and attractive field of construction, more people will fill the openings that we already have and need filled. This will help us overcome the labor shortage crisis, and if it means less time spent in understaffed work zones, all the better.


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