Skilled-labor shortage could delay transportation-bonds projects

When California decided to borrow to pay for $19.93 billion worth of new transportation projects, it looked like the heavy lifting had been done. The scheme was successfully sold to a fickle electorate. The governor and the Legislature’s leaders joined hands and everyone eagerly waited for construction to begin across the state.

But as construction workers, electricians, welders, heavy-equipment operators, cement workers, iron workers, contractors, building companies, engineers and others confront the first $4.3 billion round of projects approved by the California Transportation Commission, concerns intensify over the state’s supply of skilled laborers. Could a shortage delay the projects?

Right now, there is no shortage, business and labor experts agree. But over the next decade, California clearly has a problem.

“Just in construction alone, we are looking at 174,000 open jobs during the next decade, and that doesn’t even include the impact of the infrastructure improvements,” said Tim Rainey, who handles workforce development for the California Labor Federation, which represents some 2.1 million workers in 1,200 affiliated unions. The full effect on the job force of the infrastructure-improvement package–some $43 billion, including the transportation piece–could result in an additional 100,000 open jobs, Rainey said. “Whether or not the bonds will be delayed because of the skill shortage, that’s not clear,” he added.

The reasons for the potential shortage are complex, according to contractors, union interests and lawmakers.

Baby-boomers, the older and more skilled members of the construction work force, are retiring in large numbers. Vocational-education programs, once a popular option for high-school age youngsters, are dwindling. Apprenticeship programs, pushed by unions to develop a continuing supply of skilled labor, are popular but limited. The educational establishment pushes a college education as the preferred goal for students, but gives short shrift to blue-collar careers that include skilled crafts. Construction work may pay well, but it’s physically demanding, and workers leave the profession to pursue less-rigorous work.

Experts say there should be more resources devoted to training, especially in K-12. There needs to be better coordination between the training programs that are already out there, and there should be a greater push by local entities to capture state and federal job-training money.

Historically, there have been fears about labor shortages when large public-works projects have been approved, and industry generally has been able to accommodate the spikes in demand. Even so, the concerns remain.

“The perception of people [about shortages] is not entirely without merit. If projects were awarded all at once, you might see spot shortages, but you wouldn’t see any massive shortages,” said Tom Holsman, chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors of California. His organization represents 1,200 companies that do the majority of nonresidential construction in California. Holsman noted that a number of groups have been created to encourage new workers into the skilled marker, such as “Helmets to Hardhats,” which seeks to train those leaving the military.

But Holsman’s larger concern is about “the ability of the contractors to bid for projects,” which could be impaired without careful planning. Too many projects hitting at once, too few skilled workers available, too-short deadlines and projects that are so large that only a handful of companies can handle them could play a role.

“There is a high probability you could reduce the number of bidders to no more one or two,” Holsman said. He said that even before voters approved the bonds in November of 2006, Caltrans Director Will Kempton met with builders, contractors and others to ensure a staged, smooth bidding process. Absent that, Holsman said, “you could end up with a glut [of projects] and few bidders.”

In the Legislature, concerns about potential labor shortages have swirled for months.

“The question is whether we are going to have the people to do this stuff,” said Senate Republican Leader Dick Ackerman, a member of the Senate labor committee. “It’s good that not all these projects are going to come in one year or two or three. If you put all of them out there right now, it would be a disaster.”

“Everybody is concerned about the labor element,” Ackerman added. “But there’s a lot of work out there.”

Contact John Howard at

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