With the Covid-19 pandemic threatening the two restaurants he owned in Oklahoma City, Vetiana Phiasiripanyo decided to sell and switch to a vastly different career: wind energy.
It would prove a lucrative decision.
Before he was finished taking classes at a local trade school, Phiasiripanyo had employers lining up. He landed four offers and a six-figure job after just two months. He now makes more than $100,000 as a project lead for a company that installs wind turbines.
It’s an example of the huge demand for talent in industries that include wind power and other alternative energies — and the potential labor shortage facing President Joe Biden’s ambitious plan to upgrade the country’s infrastructure, after a years-long failure to train the kinds of workers needed to do it.
The plan, which needs congressional approval, would build, rebuild or strengthen highways, bridges, water facilities, power plants and the electrical grid.
But many of the industries needed to complete this work are already struggling to find skilled labor — despite relatively high salaries and comparatively good benefits — in a nation that has put more emphasis on bachelor’s degrees than vocational education.
That will make it difficult to catch up to the boom in demand that would be created by a national infrastructure push, said Joseph Kane, a researcher and fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.
“We have to market these jobs and make sure high school kids who are smart consider it.”Levi Fuller, wastewater operations superintendent, Dublin San Ramon Services District
Infrastructure workers “require months, if not years, of on-the-job experience to demonstrate competency,” Kane said. “It’s not just a matter of, ‘Let’s hire someone in infrastructure.’ ”
Much of the infrastructure economy is also facing a “silver tsunami” of retirements in the next decade; experts worry there won’t be nearly enough younger workers to fill those jobs. Brookings estimates about 10 percent of the infrastructure workforce — about 1.5 million people — will permanently leave their jobs every year over the next decade.
About a quarter of the workforce in industries such as power generation and water and sewer operations is 55 to 64 years old, according to the economic modeling firm Emsi. In nearly every sector included in Biden’s plan, almost a quarter of the workers are 45 to 54 years old.
Take the water industry, which is facing a severe problem finding younger workers — or any workers at all. A 2018 Brookings study found water workers tend to be a few years older than the average American worker.
Rebecca Shelton, an assistant director at the Gwinnett County, Georgia, water resources department, said one out of every 10 of her employees could retire now if they wanted.
“While I’m excited about the infrastructure bill, I think that’s going to cause an even more severe need,” said Shelton, a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ infrastructure committee. “Some places are going to have trouble getting projects done on time. Getting them done in a timely manner, getting the quality of work that we need, certainly could be affected.”
When it comes to the water Americans drink or the bridges they cross, quality is particularly important. But some infrastructure fields, especially construction, never recovered from the last recession, and the pandemic has made shortages much worse.
More than 60 percent of the construction workers who lost their jobs from 2007 to 2009 never returned to the industry, said Michael Ibrahim, an assistant professor of civil engineering at California State University, Los Angeles.
Then, when Covid hit, more than a million construction workers were laid off in March and April of 2020 alone, he said. Once again, many may be lost from the construction workforce permanently, unless policymakers find new ways to entice them to come back, he said.
“The labor shortage has been a problem for more than a decade,” said Ibrahim, who is also director of the construction and engineering management program at Cal State Los Angeles. “Covid-19 is just shedding some light on the problem.”
Staffing shortfalls between industries differ; industries growing the fastest are likely to have the most difficulties. Brookings predicts a 60 percent increase in wind turbine technician hiring and a 50 percent rise in solar panel installer jobs over the next decade, compared to a 3.7 percent average increase across all jobs nationally.
Some regions are likely to see more severe worker shortages should the infrastructure bill be passed. Take Omaha, which has experienced a surge in technology companies that can’t find enough plumbers, electricians and mechanics. The region’s colleges acknowledge they can’t keep up with the demand.
“Our programs are full,” said Nathan Barry, dean of career and technical education at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha. “We could double our enrollment and we still wouldn’t meet the needs of the community.”
More than 60 percent of the construction workers who lost their jobs from 2007 to 2009 never returned to the industry. More than a million more were laid off when Covid hit and also may not come back.
Community colleges are the backbone of the nation’s workforce. More than 40 percent of undergraduate college students attend community colleges, according to the Community College Research Center, many in vocational fields responsible for keeping the country’s infrastructure running.
But those colleges are chronically underfunded and often unable to match private-sector salaries or train students using modern technology. These challenges have been compounded by huge enrollment declines during the pandemic.
The number of students in community colleges is down by 11 percent this spring, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
While the enrollment decline is concerning, the “biggest challenge is finding qualified instructors and getting equipment,” Barry said. “We need to make sure we’re not putting in front of them equipment that’s 10 or 15 years old. And a lot of times if we’re wanting somebody [to teach] with 20-plus years of experience, we can’t afford them.”
Biden’s plan includes $12 billion to modernize community colleges, particularly in rural areas. In the meantime, some colleges, businesses and metropolitan areas have looked for ways to ease worker shortages.
Oklahoma City’s state-funded Francis Tuttle Technology Center has made big investments in electric vehicle technology, a major part of Biden’s plan, working with local companies to develop training programs in battery development and other areas, college leaders said.
“Our workforce is rapidly evolving,” said Cody Mosley, Francis Tuttle’s director of workforce and economic development. “There are new technologies and it takes schools like Francis Tuttle to adapt and evolve.”
Companies, colleges and local governments haven’t always communicated well about workforce needs. In rural areas, colleges have been known to cut agricultural programs that drive the local economy, and urban colleges sometimes fail to train students to keep transit systems running.
In the San Francisco area, water agencies have tried to find ways to bridge those gaps, banding together to work with community colleges in an industry short of plant operators and engineers.
Although a handful of Bay Area colleges train students for water and wastewater jobs, some of which pay six-figure salaries, agencies weren’t hiring graduates because they didn’t have enough on-the-job experience, said Michael Kushner, who manages the Baywork coalition of regional water agencies. One utility lost several employees at once and had to turn to a staffing agency when it couldn’t find replacements on its own, Kushner said, underscoring the need for younger employees.
“Some places are going to have trouble getting projects done on time. Getting them done in a timely manner, getting the quality of work that we need, certainly could be affected.”Rebecca Shelton, assistant director, Gwinnett County, Georgia, water resources department
“Even at the entry level, you might not have enough experience to get hired,” he said. “People would come out of these community college programs and they would have to intern, often for free, to get this experience.”
Baywork has created apprenticeship programs to get students that experience while they’re in school; utility managers believe this approach will solve some staffing problems. And some water agencies have agreed to hold community college classes at their plants to cut down on students’ commute times and provide practical experience.
At the Dublin San Ramon Services District, which provides water and sewer services to a largely residential area southeast of Oakland, leaders have used plant tours and job fairs to boost interest in water jobs. It’s a tough sell for an industry that hasn’t done a good job marketing itself, said Levi Fuller, the district’s wastewater operations superintendent.
“Despite the fact that people have water in their house and flush the toilet every day, not very many people think about water or wastewater as a career,” Fuller said. “We have to market these jobs and make sure high school kids who are smart consider it.”
In addition to age, infrastructure fields have gender and racial diversity problems.
More than 82 percent of workers in power plant operations are white, according to the Brookings Institution, and 82 percent of infrastructure workers are men.
Fuller is one of the few Black infrastructure workers — and one of even fewer at the management level. Tajudeen Bakare, a bridge engineer in Columbus, Ohio, is among a relative handful of Black civil engineers.
Bakare, a principal at the design and engineering firm CT Consultants, has worked with the National Society of Black Engineers to bring more young people of color into the industry. Just 1 percent of his company’s 400 employees are Black, he said, but he’s seen more interest from Black college graduates recently.
“I’ve been in this business 36 years and the first 25 years I was miserable,” Bakare said. “It used to be when I went to an engineering conference I didn’t see people who looked like me. The past five years that has changed.”
A more diverse workforce would help fill jobs, but it will take broader steps to complete the slew of infrastructure projects proposed by the administration. Experts say Congress should pay attention to a few relatively easy fixes, including allowing students to use Pell grants to pay for short-term college vocational programs and investing in child care to help older students get the training they need to change jobs.
Then there are the basic digital skills many potential workers lack, said Katie Spiker, director of government affairs for the National Skills Coalition. About 48 million Americans don’t have these skills, she said, meaning they’ll be unable to operate software or machinery at a job site.
“If you don’t have the ability to log on to a computer, then it just takes that much more training,” Spiker said. “The United States has not invested in the kind of support that allows workers to access those skills.”
This story about workforce development and infrastructure was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.