Transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg sparked controversy in mid-February when he gave a speech focusing on the racial makeup of construction workers. Criticizing the building industry for too often not having a workforce that looks like “they came from anywhere near the neighborhood,” Buttigieg urged government officials to tear down the “barriers” that created these alleged inequities and to ensure that the industry “builds a workforce that reflects the community.”
His remarks drew fire mainly because they came in the wake of the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment and the controlled burning of toxic chemicals from the site, which Buttigieg had yet to discuss when he made his construction-industry speech. Former Ohio state senator Nina Turner, a Democrat, accused Buttigieg of “ignoring East Palestine,” and added, “We deserve better than this.” Others criticized Buttigieg for focusing on race rather than skills and training in an industry’s workforce.
But Buttigieg’s remarks, part of an increasingly single-minded racial emphasis in the Biden administration, were also misleading. The construction trades are among the most diverse in America. As a proportion of construction workers, whites are underrepresented relative to their share of the broader population. More to the point, the biggest problem the industry faces right now is not racial imbalance but an extreme shortage of workers that threatens to undermine the rebound of construction post-Covid. Worker scarcity is opening an opportunity for young people of all races to find a career in the industry—yet their biggest roadblock to getting jobs may be Biden policies favoring firms that use workers in unions, some with a notorious history of excluding minorities.
Buttigieg seems unaware that the construction industry has been transforming dramatically for more than a decade. The share of whites working in construction trades has declined since 2010, from 63.2 percent to 52.9 percent. In that time, the industry has become more accommodating to minorities. The share of Hispanic workers has grown from 20.2 percent to 27.7 percent. Black workers, meantime, constitute another 11.1 percent of the industry.
Jobs in this well-paying, though highly cyclical, industry have been growing along with the rest of the American economy. Last year, construction employment hit an all-time high, and estimates suggest further growth this year—if companies can find enough workers. Just days before Buttigieg’s untimely speech, a construction trade group projected that the industry would need 546,000 new workers in 2023 alone, owing to job growth and worker retirements. One problem: nearly a quarter of all workers in the industry are over 55 years old. Most of these are experienced and skilled workers likely to retire in the next decade.
Industry groups, often in partnership with trade schools and community colleges, are trying to fill this gap. The Associated Builders and Contractors, a trade group, runs some 800 apprenticeship programs training workers around the country, representing $1.6 billion worth of investment. Beyond training, businesses know that recruiting more workers means raising wages and benefits in an industry that already pays well for skilled blue-collar labor. Wages in the industry average $30 an hour, not including benefits, but can go much higher for the most experienced hands.
Some of the added pressure on construction employment is coming from the November 2021 Biden infrastructure bill, which contains roughly $550 billion in new spending on building. The legislation also directs federal agencies to develop plans to train the necessary workers. But the administration gives, and the administration takes away: even as Democrats expand construction funding, they are rewarding union allies and their restrictive membership practices at the expense of non-union competitors. Last February, the administration issued an executive order mandating that construction projects costing more than $35 million and using federal money must adhere to project labor agreements—that is, collective bargaining agreements that set the terms of labor relationships before a project begins. While the administration claims that such contracts help provide efficiency and predictability, others call them a boon for unions. “Essentially,” a PLA “guarantees the project will use union labor,” observes a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
The irony of this order in light of Buttigieg’s comments is that historically, trade unions have worked to exclude minorities from the industry. The rise of a minority workforce in construction corresponds with the decline of unionism in the industry. At their height, unions represented some 37 percent of building industry workers; today, that number is down to about 13 percent. Further, evidence suggests that the nonunion builders that the Biden administration seeks to squeeze out of federal projects are responsible for much of the hiring of minorities. One study in Boston, for instance, found that out of nearly $1 billion worth of local government building projects using union labor, just $3.8 million went to black-owned companies. “In comparison, one non-union project under construction in Boston is currently providing $3 million in contracts to Black-owned companies,” the report noted. Similarly, in a survey of construction company owners, 70 percent said that the federal government’s new PLA mandates would “decrease the hiring of women, veteran and disadvantaged business enterprises and construction workers, which have traditionally been unaffiliated with labor unions.”
Buttigieg’s characterization of the construction workforce, like so many other pronouncements on race that he and his colleagues have made, seem like something out of the past. His remarks ignore or minimize the progress the industry has made, while overlooking real challenges: how to get a generation of young people too often deterred from pursuing trade work, or frustrated by a lack of available training programs, or simply unaware of the opportunities available, to seize their chance. That should be an effort that unifies government and industry. Somehow, Buttigieg found a way to be divisive instead.
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