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President Joe Biden locked down the infrastructure portion of his vision for economic recovery. Then Congress crushed the plan for training enough workers to turn that vision into reality.
Even before the president signed the bipartisan infrastructure package into law in November, economists warned that a shortage of skilled workers would spoil Democrats’ dreams of mass job creation. Weeks later, prospects withered for passing the other chunk of Biden’s master plan, the $1.7 trillion climate and social spending package, throwing into limbo the $20 billion for education and training programs that were supposed to get enough workers ready to do those jobs.
Now, the White House is scrambling to spend the $550 billion in infrastructure cash, as Democrats attempt to rev the economy and win over voters before the midterm elections next fall.
“You have to say to yourself, are we ready to build this much stuff this fast?” Mitch Landrieu, who Biden has charged with overseeing the infrastructure spending, said this month.
More than 10 million job openings remain unfilled throughout the country — a labor scarcity that could undermine both Democrats’ work to improve the nation’s infrastructure and their chances of holding control of Congress as Republicans vie to flip both chambers come November.
Stymied in their attempts to pass major elections reform and their signature social spending legislation, Democrats are emphasizing the bills they’ve already passed, namely pandemic relief and the infrastructure package. But that’s a tricky campaign-trail talking point without real progress to show for it.
Biden administration heads, raring to spend the first tranches of infrastructure money, have started talking logistics with industry leaders such as Randy Pacheco, the owner of a New Mexico company that plugs abandoned oil wells.
“This is an enormous — enormous — amount of pressure it's going to create. How are you going to spend the money?” Pacheco said in an interview this week. “We don't have a qualified workforce. We don't even have training for it.”
Pacheco delivered the same message to federal officials this month during an Interior Department meeting about beginning to rapidly spend almost $5 billion to plug about 130,000 of those wells across 26 states.
Getting the infrastructure work done is doable “if you run to the fire,” said Landrieu, a former mayor of New Orleans and a former lieutenant governor of Louisiana. “And one of the fires is: Do we have enough people? … How do we create workforce training programs? How do we build capacity?”
The infrastructure bill does provide some money for worker training, including $32 million to get more people certified to drive commercial vehicles and trained to enforce the rules for using those heavy rigs. It also served up $40 million to train workers to do energy audits and $20 million for education on modern and energy-efficient building technology.
Still, that money pales in comparison to the funds languishing in the $1.7 trillion social spending package Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) singlehandedly put on ice last month. The so-called Build Back Better Act would spend almost $14 billion on Labor Department workforce efforts like apprenticeship programs to train workers for in-demand jobs like welding, plus more than $6 billion for Education Department efforts, including $5 billion to run community college programs that partner with businesses like companies that pour concrete.
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said in an interview this week that he’s “still hopeful” the social spending package and its “significant investment in job training money” can advance despite the legislation’s uncertain path forward. While Manchin's opposition has sent that bill back to the drawing board, Democratic leaders continue to hope they can pass a smaller version.
Before the infrastructure package reached final passage, the White House made clear that the legislation’s potential for creating jobs was directly tied to Biden’s other major spending plan. “Combined with the President’s Build Back Framework,” the infrastructure bill “will add an average 1.5 million jobs per year for the next 10 years,” the White House stated in November.
Andy Van Kleunen, who heads the National Skills Coalition, a jobs training advocacy organization, said the demand for infrastructure work simply exceeds capacity, “even if we took all the resources that are in the current workforce system and put them towards training folks for infrastructure jobs.”
“We need the additional resources from Build Back Better in order to be able to actually meet all the demand that we think the infrastructure package is going to require," Van Kleunen said.
It’s a familiar dilemma for Biden, who was vice president when workforce shortages stifled the execution of former President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus in 2009.
“They don’t want to wind up like the Obama administration, which promised shovel-ready projects that turned out not to be so shovel ready,” said Nicole Smith, the chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
Besides the social spending package, there is one more major funding bill that could boost worker training programs this year. If Democrats and Republicans can strike a budget accord to fund federal agencies until the fall, that government funding package is likely to surge spending on job training programs.
Democrats are seeking $12 billion for the Labor Department agency that handles employment and training programs, a 16 percent increase. They also want almost $103 billion in funding for the Education Department, a nearly 40 percent hike above current spending, including a 10 percent increase in cash for career and technical education.
All that cash is “interconnected,” said Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), who chairs the Transportation-HUD spending panel.
"A lot of the major infrastructure measures depend on this appropriations bill,” Price said. “They're intertwined. And no matter what happens with anything else, we've got to not just keep the government open but also enact the investments we've made in those bills."
Heather Richards contributed to this report.