Infrastructure & Skilled Labor: Why Immediately Prioritizing Full Employment in the Trades is Best Move for America (Op-Ed)
More than 30 million Americans have lost their jobs in the span of a few weeks. Many economists project that unemployment will reach levels not seen since the Great Depression. And it’s important that we are honest with the American people: There isn’t a snapback coming. This recovery will be longer and harder than most understand.
The United States’ strength as a nation, moving forward, rests in the collective power of working-class Americans who will literally rebuild the country both during and after this epidemic. This crisis has exposed massive deficiencies across a variety of critical infrastructure sectors. With the proper investment, these deficiencies should not only be fixed but rather must be massively built upon, if we are to be prepared as a nation for what is now effectively the rapid restructuring of the global political economy.
That is why we must immediately prioritize full employment, and full capacity, in sectors of our economy that are in fact safely able to work right now. Construction workers, carpenters, laborers, operating engineers, and other high-wage skilled labor sectors have largely been deemed essential during the crisis. But they’re even more essential to the recovery. There are few investments that will pay dividends like an immediate and massive injection of resources into our critical infrastructure.
This also means that we’re investing in the largest sector in our economy. According to a Pew Research report from late 2019, nearly 28 million Americans work in a trade, transportation, or utilities. That’s more than one in four Americans in the workforce. And these are high-paying jobs. These are the same jobs that helped build the thriving middle class that has all but disappeared. At the same time, there were already shortages of skilled labor in the marketplace. The expectation is that jobs in this sector will continue to climb for most of the next decade.
In a consumer spending economy, confidence determines economic output. It’s the reason some leaders play cheerleader, even though you can’t cheer away a virus or spin people into spending. Today, and for the foreseeable future, confidence will be built on the perception of safety, which of course is predicated on the reality of safety. Until and unless people begin feeling genuinely safe (both physically and economically) our consumer spending will invariably be depressed relative to our pre-COVID reality.
Restaurants will have to allow fewer people in. Same with theaters. We may even see retail stores limit the number of people inside a building at any given time. Because of this, businesses will rehire employees slower than they laid them off. Their revenues will, in most cases, be lower, and thus their cost structures must shrink too.
This will not be a “v-shaped” recovery, and millions will not have work anytime soon. But, for many, we can change that. We can and should put millions to work rebuilding America’s most vulnerable critical infrastructure. This is how we not only best mitigate the lingering effects of historic unemployment, but also finally make much-needed structural improvements that modernize America, revamp critical infrastructure, and allow us to mobilize as a nation irrespective of other countries. This is done in large part by making investments into our roads and bridges, domestic manufacturing sectors that will allow America to more easily mobilize as a nation in times of crisis, and broadband.
While Congress turns its attention to a fourth stimulus bill to address this crisis, the piece of the discussion that continues to lag behind is the critical investments we must make in our infrastructure. I want to outline three specific things that Congress should do as fast as possible. Each of these things sits at the intersection of two critical priorities. Doing them helps protect our entire country today while simultaneously preparing us for tomorrow.
The first is to make sure our essential workers, and in particular those who work in critical infrastructure, are fully protected. This includes ensuring they have extended hazard pay and sick leave without the risk of losing their jobs. While a great deal of infrastructure jobs involve direct construction, many also focus on the maintenance of already constructed infrastructure. Ensuring this workforce is protected is a national security priority.
Which brings me to my second point. America spends $700B a year on national security, but this pandemic has exposed incredible weaknesses in our preparedness to protect against pandemics, or even bio-terrorism. We found ourselves without the ability to quickly produce the resources we need and overly dependent on foreign supply chains. The first rule of national security is not to rely on foreign governments for your protection. America must build a robust network of multi-purpose factories, and invest money at the federal level to ensure we have the capacity and preparedness to quickly mass produce things as simple as PPE and as complicated as serology tests, treatments, and vaccines without dependence on other nations. This is a national security issue.
The third priority should be far more obvious, and has been argued extensively over the years by many people on both sides of the political aisle. America needs a massive investment rebuilding our critical infrastructure. Our roads, bridges, railways, airports, hospitals, schools, energy grid, water and sewer, and so much more are in desperate need of an upgrade. As the spring turns to summer, we can put millions who are out of work to work for America, rebuilding the nation. Long after the construction stops, there will be millions of decent paying jobs spread throughout the country necessary to maintain our critical infrastructure.
We can rebuild our energy grid to protect against foreign cyberthreats, creating a distributed network that drives down energy costs, increases energy efficiency, and creates thousands of sustainable jobs across America in traditional (short-term) and renewable (long-term) energy sources. We can build high-speed rail to better connect the country and enable more labor mobility, thus protecting more Americans from future economic shocks. Even if we didn’t want high-speed rail, we can rebuild our crumbling roads, railways, and bridges. The most powerful nation on earth should do better than a D+ on its infrastructure report card. And, perhaps most importantly, we can implement a national broadband program to make sure all Americans, regardless of zip code, have access to high-speed internet.
The Great Recession hollowed out already struggling rural communities full of strong, smart people and they shouldn’t be forced to move into cities to survive. Decades of disinvestments in marginalized communities in America’s urban centers have made living with dignity nearly impossible for many. The reality is that the internet, and in particular high-speed internet, can serve as an equalizing force. A person can create a thriving business anywhere now, but only if they have access to the 21st-century highway system.
One in five Americans lives in a rural area. But, in places where residents have access to the same technology as big cities, we’re seeing the same type of potential for economic vitality. Why is technology (in this case broadband) so critical? Throughout modern economic history, labor mobility was the key for a worker to ensure long-term economic health. This means the ability of the worker to easily move to find work as needed, defined long-term success.
Labor clusters were the key to ensure the long-term vitality of a business, as it is necessary for firms to have access to enough skilled labor in the local area to actually deliver its product or service.
Want to understand what happened to rural America? This is it. As major manufacturing left or became automated, the labor force wasn’t as mobile. New emerging firms largely focused on non-production based business models (technology for example) don’t start or locate themselves in these rural areas, as they couldn’t find a big enough cluster of workers with the specific skills they need. When rural America and other disinvested communities were cut off from the digital revolution because of poor internet access, people were trapped.
According to a 2016 Census Bureau report, nearly 1 in 3 people in rural America work in manufacturing, construction, utility, or transportation sectors. Nearly 1 in 2 work in those sectors plus education and healthcare. In other words, roughly half of the people in rural America are tied to industries that rely on crumbling infrastructure. From 1999 to 2016, suicide rates among people in rural counties were 25 percent higher than those in major metropolitan areas. Rural America has also been disproportionately ravaged by the opioid crisis.
Their lives are a reflection of the world they see, which is in decay. Perhaps now America will also recognize the folly of its failed war on drugs, and view drug abuse as the healthcare crisis it is, often spurred on by the hopeless circumstances of lives we’ve left behind.
People who lived in rural communities either had to give up the life they loved and leave or they were left behind as the world moved on. Broadband access, combined with “trade schools” that develop digital skillsets without the burden of college debt (over a $1.5 trillion in America right now), eliminate the labor mobility challenge and the labor cluster challenges. Especially now that companies in America are figuring out work at home arrangements en masse. In other words, if we can drive universal access to broadband, geographic barriers to economic vitality are reduced in critical ways. This is true for rural communities and other areas that have experienced intentional disinvestment.
The unfortunate truth is, though, that these big communications industries, which are part of our critical infrastructure, will not expand this access without government funding because it’s not profitable enough. Their interests are not the national interest. Their interests are in maximization of shareholder profits. Therefore, we need major government investment in this critical infrastructure sector, and we need it now. Not just to put people to work today, but to ensure that all Americans, irrespective of geographic location, are able to prosper tomorrow. We have failed our rural and disinvested communities, facilitating the conditions for inequitable access to basic necessities like affordable and reliable internet. This inequity in opportunity and its resulting disparity runs contrary not only to the national interest but to the very idea of the social contract.
America is at a crossroads. Without making immediate and substantial domestic investments, our short and long-term economic future is in jeopardy. While the United States has spent more than $14 trillion overseas on war, countries like China have spent trillions on expanding and modernizing their critical infrastructure. This crisis has exposed the disparate impact of these divergent spending priorities. While moving skilled labor towards full employment makes the most sense from an economic perspective, it also happens to be what is necessary for America to thrive and compete as a nation in a rapidly evolving world. The United States must act, and act quickly, so we can take advantage of the unique opportunity to rebuild our country, put millions of people to work, and prepare for an uncertain and challenging future.
Editors Note: Justin Horwitz is a Democratic Political Strategist and Digital Media Entrepreneur who has worked on campaigns at the local, state, and federal levels. He has a Bachelors’s degree in Economics. You can follow Justin on Twitter at @JustinAHorwitz