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April 28, 2022 6:39 PM, EDT

House Transportation Democrats Prioritize Inclusive Workforce Programs

DeFazioRep. Peter DeFazio spoke about the importance of job creation through the legislation. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

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House Democrats proposed expanding diversity recruitment efforts across the transportation workforce as the Biden administration continues to pursue outreach programs.

Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) insisted the enactment of the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) presented an ideal opportunity for job creation throughout various sectors.

“As development of transportation projects gets underway, we need to make sure there’s a qualified workforce available to meet construction hiring needs,” DeFazio told colleagues April 27 during a hearing of the Highways and Transit subpanel. “The construction sector has long provided high-paying careers to individuals looking for an alternative to a traditional four-year college degree.”

Specifically, DeFazio pointed to provisions in the law that dedicated funding for roadway rebuilding projects, as well as transit and rail projects. Provisions regarding the recruitment and retention of local employees were included in the law in anticipation of states and municipalities proceeding with highway and transit construction projects.

“Thanks to the IIJA, state and local transportation agencies are now able to require that a percentage of the workforce hired to build federally funded transportation projects comes from the local community,” DeFazio added. “This authority, commonly referred to as ‘local hire,’ was previously only authorized through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s pilot programs.”

Eleanor Holmes Norton

Holmes Norton

Highways and Transit Subcommittee Chairwoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) echoed the chairman’s sentiment as she proposed Congress further enhance programs that facilitate employment opportunities and job security.

“A historic investment of this size will require a diverse, qualified construction workforce to ensure these projects are carried out on time and will be built to last. The construction trades offer fulfilling and high-paying careers, supporting thousands of workers and their families,” Norton said. “Yet too often barriers, such as transportation costs, child care or lack of access to training and other support, hinder the ability of women, minorities and disadvantaged individuals to access jobs in the construction sector.”

Kari Karst, president of BX Civil and Construction, representing the Associated General Contractors of America, told the House subcommittee the sector has identified challenges as it aims to tackle infrastructure projects nationwide.

“The construction industry continues to face workforce shortages due to expected craft worker retirements, growth in other sectors, and challenges to recruiting and training new workers into the industry,” Karst said. “Meanwhile, construction demand and activity continue to grow. There will be challenges to finding enough skilled workers to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure.”

The trucking industry also has identified workforce concerns. American Trucking Associations, for instance, has determined the industry is short about 80,000 commercial drivers.

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The Biden administration has sought to respond to workforce shortages across the transportation sector. A recent collaboration among the departments of Labor and Transportation and freight stakeholders was established to expand registered apprenticeship programs to recruit and retain commercial drivers. Underrepresented groups, such as women and minorities, have been sought for the apprenticeships.

“In the last 90 days, 100 major employers have launched new registered apprenticeship programs,” Biden said April 4. “What that all adds up to is a strong foundation for the work ahead: a pipeline of hardworking men and women from all backgrounds, highly trained and highly motivated to get behind the wheel, including a whole lot of veterans.”

Meanwhile, Republicans on the panel proposed the Biden administration prioritize directives meant to streamline the permitting process for big-ticket projects. They took aim at provisions approved in the IIJA.

“For too long, worthy infrastructure projects have been needlessly delayed by our permitting system. Time is money, and in a world of skyrocketing inflation, further delay in implementing this law limits the total number of jobs infrastructure money creates,” said Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), Highways and Transit Subcommittee ranking member. “As the federal government begins to allocate funds for infrastructure projects, we must ensure our workforce is available and ready from the start so that dollars can stretch further.”