It is no secret that many industries across the United States are experiencing worker shortages. This problem is especially critical in highway construction.
According to a 2021 survey by the Associated General Contractors of America, 90 percent of construction firms said they have open positions and 89 percent said they are having a hard time filling them. Seventy-two percent of respondents said the reason they were having a hard time filling positions is because potential employees "are not qualified to work in the industry."
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) formed the Strategic Workforce Development implementation team as part of Every Day Counts round six (EDC-6) to help remedy this massive problem. The group’s mantra and central theme is "Identify, Train, Place." Attract applicants, get them the training they need, and place them in long-term construction careers.
"We as a Nation have to fill the pipeline with qualified workers," said Karen Bobo, Director of the FHWA Center for Transportation Workforce Development and co-lead of the EDC-6 strategic workforce development team. "That means not only attracting applicants but being intentional about improving their skills and getting them right into jobs."
Identifying and attracting workers means marketing the highway construction industry to them. Many construction firms and local agencies cannot afford the time or money to create outreach campaigns, so FHWA created a toolkit of communication assets that are free to download, customize, and use in their communities.
The toolkit includes posters, flyers, postcard mailers, exhibit banners, and talking points for public meetings and presentations. The toolkit provides a complete, consistent package of materials firms and agencies can use, even if they do not have professional marketing experience. Many of the items can be customized with local contact information.
"We at FHWA can work with the highway construction industry and serve as a hub of information and materials," said Joe Conway, Director of the FHWA Center for Local Aid Support and the other co-lead of the EDC-6 strategic workforce development team. "We created this marketing package for them to download and use for free as one way to help them address their highway construction workforce crisis."
The toolkit also has case studies from around the country detailing how others are working to solve their workforce shortages. States and cities have formed what FHWA calls Highway Construction Workforce Partnerships (HCWPs) to bring interested parties together to find solutions. Many HCWPs are finding that potential workers have the will to pursue highway construction but lack the practical means of doing so.
In Rhode Island, case managers meet with individuals at the time they express interest in joining a workforce training program. They discuss employment barriers as well as career goals to determine what resources will help ensure success for each applicant. According to Andrew Cortes of Rhode Island’s HCWP, their working group establishes a budget around helping people make the transition into the workforce.
"We do a lot to remove barriers so individuals can go to work," said Cortes. "We’ll help reinstate driver’s licenses, provide health and nutritional benefits, or offer language support services."
Cortes also emphasized the importance of continued support once individuals graduate from the training programs. "We’ll hold alumni gatherings and have 200 people show up to connect with each other."
The Dallas HCWP is a collaboration between the Texas Department of Transportation and other partners to develop a new program called ConnectU2Jobs that will remove youthful offenders arrested for felony crimes out of the criminal justice system and prepare and train them for careers in the heavy highway construction industry. The program is based on an "earn-while-you-learn" concept that allows participants to earn income while receiving classroom-based training and on-the-job training.
In Los Angeles, prospective highway construction workers first learn about the levels of support offered to help them succeed. This gives the HCWP an opportunity to home in on specific needs for each cohort, so they can find community partners willing to provide the resources that will eliminate barriers to program completion.
"Participation in our program not only affects individuals, but also their families," said Robert Chavez, a member of the Los Angeles HCWP. "We can provide housing, rental assistance, or childcare to help people meet their training requirements."
For the Denver HCWP, making sure program participants know what support services are available is key to taking them to their first day on the job and beyond. Alena Jimenez, Navigator and Business Services Coordinator for the Center for Workforce Initiatives, said stabilizing an individual at the beginning of the program is important to retaining them on the job.
"Once a person’s home life is stable enough for them to get to the job, we can work on career development," said Jimenez. "We start with a basic list of stabilizing resources. As we get to know an individual, we’re able to cover other needs they have."
Bobo and Conway know it will take time and many collaborators to solve the highway construction workforce shortage. They will keep celebrating and promoting successes from across the country.
"There is no ‘one thing’ people can do to solve the highway construction workforce shortage," Bobo said. "It will take an integrated, holistic approach to identify, train, and place the next generation of skilled builders. We are honored to play our part."
The highway construction workforce labor gap impacts all businesses looking to grow and expand. Wendi Secrist, executive director of the Idaho Workforce Development Council, explains the expected gap in her State and the challenges it brings.
Notice: The U.S. Government does not endorse products or manufacturers. Trademarks or manufacturers’ names appear in this article only because they are considered essential to the objective of the document.
Recommended Citation: U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration - Washington, DC (2021) Innovator Newsletter, January/February 2022, Volume 15 (88). https://doi.org/10.21949/1521806