Hurricanes Have Made Lack of Skilled Workers a National Crisis

Long before Hurricane Harvey first made shore, our country already faced a long term threat to its built environment. Our nation’s entire infrastructure had been several decades overdue for a major upgrade: rusting bridges, “third world” airports, trains running off the rails, over-heating power grids. Donald Trump was only the latest in a generation of politicians calling for a massive public investment to bring that infrastructure up to 21st century standards. And as with candidates before him, political promises had been followed by little tangible action.

Then Mother Nature forced the issue. Harvey, Irma and Maria, along with the California wildfires, gave Washington no choice but to start investing in a smaller scale multi-state rebuild. Last week Congress approved its second relief package for the disaster-impacted states, bringing total disbursements to date to just over $50 billion.

So why has the rebuilding of disaster-impacted communities been so slow to start? While skilled tradespeople on loan from other states could provide some temporary assistance, most of those workers have had to go back home to continue a building boom that has already outstripped the U.S. construction workforce. Houston, southern Florida, and Puerto Rico thus face a crisis in which there are not enough local skilled workers able to put nail to beam, rivet to girder, or power line to tower. Demand for skilled workers is at emergency levels now, and is likely to be elevated for years to come in these communities.

Demand for skilled workers is at emergency levels now.

Workforce shortages during disaster recovery are not unprecedented. In 2005, the Bush administration’s assistance after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita initially focused on some of the same elements as today’s relief packages: FEMA operations, temporary housing, food assistance, flood insurance subsidies. But as the flood waters receded from the Gulf Coast, it became clear that the reconstruction was being held up by a lack of available skilled labor. While hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost in the hurricanes’ aftermath, construction jobs actually increased in some areas. In New Orleans alone there were thousands more skilled construction jobs than residents had been able to fill before the flood, let alone after many tradespeople had evacuated the city, some never to return.

Local authorities solved some of that labor shortage by looking the other way as construction firms brought in undocumented skilled immigrants to pick up, by some estimates, a quarter of the jobs that would otherwise have gone unfilled. Meanwhile, the Bush Department of Labor issued $191 million in National Emergency Grants to the region, as well as an additional $12 million specifically to community colleges, to help people like those laid off from the shuttered New Orleans tourist industry train for new jobs, including those in the construction sector.

These labor initiatives were a good start, but they too were only short term. In response, business, labor, education and community leaders in Louisiana and Mississippi crafted a more comprehensive, long-term plan for investing in the people of the Gulf Coast, so that they might be trained not only to rebuild their communities, but also to revive the industries that would be part of the region’s economic future.

Fast forward to today’s natural disasters, and we find a similar set of workforce challenges. Houston’s local technical colleges are rushing to adjust to the demand placed on their building trades programs in the face of construction worker shortages. In the Florida Keys, the tourism industry is laying off hundreds of workers, even as construction companies are desperately searching for carpenters to rebuild local resorts. And in Puerto Rico, the achingly slow resumption of electrical power is being hampered by both a decaying power grid and a shortage of trained local utility workers, many of whom had retired or left the island years ago after the government power authority defaulted on its bonds.

Yet to date there has been no plan offered by either the Trump administration or Congress to address these workforce shortages. After Katrina, while some Gulf Coast leaders may have been dissatisfied with the scale of the Bush Administration’s workforce strategy, it did at least have one. To date, the Trump Labor Department has distributed $40 million in grants to the impacted states, primarily for unemployment assistance to those laid off because of the storms. This is vital and should be expanded, but it’s only a temporary solution to keep families whole — not a plan to ensure that local workers can participate in their community’s economic recovery. What’s more, the administration’s crackdown on immigrants will likely prevent many of them from stepping up to be a major part of the rebuilding in impacted states.

Granted, there are many other things going unaddressed in these areas besides skilled worker shortages. Progressive organizations like the Center for American Progress have proposed extensive plans for a federal response that better addresses the long term built environment needs of hurricane-impacted communities. Yet these plans have likewise been silent about the need for a workforce reinvestment strategy as part of the rebuilding plan. So this is proving to be a blind spot for both Republicans and Democrats in Washington.

That same blind spot seems to have infected both parties’ larger national infrastructure plans as well. While the president and Senate Democrats have each sketched out different approaches for creating millions of infrastructure jobs, neither has acknowledged that the industries that would lead that reconstruction — the building trades, the energy industry, the telecom industry, water/sewer management — are today unable to fill skilled positions. National Skills Coalition has again offered a plan to address this workforce oversight, and thankfully some members of Congress have responded with actionable proposals like the bi-partisan Building U.S. Infrastructure by Leveraging Demand for Skills (BUILDS) Act championed by Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Tim Kaine (D-VA). But we need more policymakers like them to embrace this overlooked part of the solution.

Whether it’s a storm damaged roadway in Puerto Rico or a too-short runway at LaGuardia, you just can’t rebuild without the skilled. Let’s hope more federal policymakers see the need for a workforce strategy in our future disaster relief and infrastructure packages.