Revitalizing Human Infrastructure
The American economy in 2023 has proven to be tremendously resilient. The recession which had been forecast by many experts has not occurred. The rapidly rising inflation has been slowed and declined considerably. And, the national unemployment rate stands close to a near record low.
In spite of this, there is still important work to be done. This is due to the fact that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of the end of July, there were 8.8 million unfilled job openings in the United States.
Thanks to bipartisan legislation and presidential leadership the country is making investments in rebuilding the nation’s physical infrastructure. Because of these unfilled jobs, we need to make investments that will revitalize America’s human infrastructure.
The Scope and Nature of Job Openings
We examine that need in this blog beginning by looking at the scope and nature of the job openings.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce (Chamber) does a good job of addressing this in two reports published on August 10 written by Stephanie Ferguson, Director, Global Employment Policy & Special Initiatives: America Works Data Center and Understanding America’s Labor Shortage: The Most Impacted Industries.
The opening section of the America Works Data Center report is titled “A National Crisis by the Numbers.” It states, “Right now there are too many jobs without people to fill them. As a result, businesses cannot grow, compete, and thrive.”
To support that assertion, the report cites the 9.6 million job openings at the end of June and the labor force participation rate of 62.6%, which is lower than February 2020 before the pandemic. It goes on to note that if the rate was the same as then, there would be 1.9 million more people in the workforce today.
The reasons provided for the lower labor force participation rate are as follows:
During the COVID-19 pandemic, early retirements and less immigration has left the nation in a worker deficit. Plus, boosted unemployment benefits, stimulus payments, and child tax credits offered during the pandemic padded the finances of some previously employed workers, and they no longer need to work, or in some cases, people have adjusted to a single-income household lifestyle.
The report continues to state that even though the departure of many from the workforce was labeled “the great resignation” by the media, a more accurate label/explanation would be “the great reshuffle.” The preference for the “reshuffle” terminology comes from the fact that as people returned to the workforce, as the pandemic subsided, they often left their current employer for a new one “in search of higher pay, more growth opportunities, or a change in industry or culture.”
We would add to the America Works Data Center’s list of the reasons for the reshuffle the fact that many workers did not return to their old jobs because they decided to start businesses of their own.
The Chamber’s other report, Understanding America’s Labor Shortage: The Most Impacted Industries opens by observing that 50 million people quit their jobs in 2022 and 47.8 million did so in 2021. It states that many of those quitting “were in search of an improved work-life balance and flexibility, increased compensation, and a strong company culture.”
The industries with the highest number of job openings were: transportation, health care and social assistance, and accommodations and food services. The report states that of those industries, the quit rates are very high in the accommodation (leisure and hospitality) and food service sectors and they “struggle to retain workers.” The quit rates in the other highest job openings industries remain relatively low and below the national average.
A closer examination of job openings, shows there are a number of other industries with high job openings. They include: educational services, professional and business services; and wholesale and retail trade.
In summary, the job openings in the United States of America today are numerous, diverse, and exist in virtually every industry. This is problematic for our nation’s human infrastructure and must be addressed in an across the board manner.
The Shortage of Teachers, Truckers and Tradespeople Revisited
As noted in our blog posted in April 2022, however:
The unfilled jobs are important for all industries and occupations. The shortage of teachers, truckers, and tradespeople is critical.
This is the case because teachers, truckers, and tradespeople are pivotal to keeping the mind, circulatory system, and backbone of the country strong and healthy. They play essential roles in America’s human infrastructure, which is crumbling, in part, due to shortages in these occupations.
We reviewed each of these shortage areas in some detail back then. Where do things stand approximately one and one-half years later?
The Teacher Shortage
Unfortunately, there is no good national database on teacher shortages and the data available on a state-by-state basis varies considerably in quality and timeliness.
The best national data we found was in an update of a research study conducted by three academics released on August 23 of this year. The original study released in August of 2022 revealed that “ …there are at least 36,000 vacant positions along with at least 163,000 positions being held by underqualified teachers.”
This update, using more up-to-date and comprehensive data, estimates that “…there are at least 55,000 vacant positions and 270,000 underqualified positions…” The study’s authors note these estimates are conservative because they cover only 43 states for varying time periods, with only one state reporting results for the 2023–2024 school year.
On March 23, 2023, Cory Turner and Nicole Turner identified things to know about the U.S. teacher shortage in a piece for the NPR Education Newsletter. They include:
- Certain “kinds” of teachers are hardest to find — among those are special education, science and math teachers
- High poverty and high minority school districts are often hardest hit by shortages
- Inflation-adjusted pay for teachers has been stagnant since 1990 while the inflation-adjusted cost of college has nearly doubled
- Between 2010 and 2018, enrollment in traditional teacher preparation programs dropped by nearly one-third
- “Teachers’ job satisfaction is at the lowest level in five decades”
The sorry state of teachers’ job satisfaction is indicated by a posting in June 2023 on the weareteachers.com website that draws upon a variety of surveys and sources to demonstrate that dissatisfaction and the teachers’ mindsets. Among the many disturbing statistics on that site are the following;
- 44 percent of teachers are burned out
- 55 percent of educators are now prepared to leave the profession earlier than they originally planned
- 35 percent of teachers say they are likely to quit within the next two years
- 80 percent of teachers say taking on more work in their district is a serious problem
- Only 10 percent of educators would recommend the profession to a young adult
The Trucker Shortage
Those are distressing signs for the future of the teaching industry. The signs for and of truckers on our nation’s highways and byways are distressing as well.
In late October 2022, the American Trucking Association (ATA) provided a trucking shortage update that stated “the truck driver shortage will remain near its historical high at nearly 78,000 drivers” (The high was 81,258 in 2021). The ATA forecast that, if current trends continue, the shortage could reach 160,000 by 2031.
An important point stressed in the update was that “while all sectors in the industry struggle with finding enough qualified drivers, the driver shortage is most acute in the longer-haul (i.e., nonlocal) for-hire truckload market”
Some of the primary factors cited for the shortage included:
- Lifestyle disadvantages, especially in the longer haul market with greater time away from home
- High number of retirements due to the high average age of drivers
- Inability of some would-be and current drivers to pass a drug test
- Barriers to entry such as minimum driving age, driving history, and criminal record
- Women making up just 8% of the trucker workforce
In an earlier report, the ATA identified low pay as a reason for not being able to attract or retain long-haul drivers. This most recent report indicates this is no longer the case. According to the ATA, the average truckload driver made $69,000 in 2021 — an increase of 18% over 2019.
What is the case, as the ATA notes is that “pay alone will not solve the driver problem.” It goes on to observe, “In fact, almost forty percent of truckload carriers reported to ATA that increases in pay last year resulted in drivers choosing to drive less, make the same amount of money, and be home more often.”
This fact reinforces the validity of the perspective of Peter Goodman of the New York Times, which we shared in our earlier blog on America’s crumbling human infrastructure:
A 1,000-mile journey through the middle of America reveals the fundamental reason for truck driver shortages: It is a job full of stress, physical deprivation, and loneliness.
There has been a downturn in freight demand and shipping in 2023. Peter Eavis, in his August 7 New York Times article, quotes Bob Costello, chief economist of the American Trucking Association, as saying, “Trucking has been in a recession, all of trucking.”
Eavis goes on to state that, however, “The stress has been concentrated among truckload companies.” In spite of this, he observes, “Industry analysts say companies have been loath to let go of drivers because of how hard it was to attract and retain them during the boom.”
The Tradespeople Shortage
As noted in our 2022 human infrastructure blog:
Skilled tradespeople include, among others: plumbers, electricians, carpenters, machinists, and HVAC technicians. They work in industries such as construction and manufacturing, and in many small family-owned businesses. Most skilled trades require specialized training, obtained through educational institutions, on-the-job training, and/or apprenticeships.
Just as with teachers and truckers, data shows that in 2023 the tradespeople shortage persists.
In a February 3 news release, Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), using its proprietary model, projected that, due to America’s economic growth and infrastructure initiatives, the construction industry would need to attract an additional 546,000 workers in 2023. ABC further projected that even with a slight slowdown in the economy in 2024, the industry would still need an additional 342,000 new workers.
On July 21, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) published a piece based upon the latest Construction Labor Market report from the Home Builders Institute that began: “The lack of skilled construction labor is a key limiting factor to expanding home construction and improving housing inventory and affordability.”
According to NAHB, key findings in the Labor Market report include:
- The number of open construction sector jobs currently averages between 300,000 to 400,000 every month.
- At least 90 percent of single-family builders responding to a survey reported a shortage of carpenters, and 80 to 85 percent reported a shortage of subcontractors in six other trades.
- More than 80 percent of remodelers reported a shortage of subcontractors in 11 of the 16 trades.
- The share of construction workers aged 25 to 54 dropped by six percent over the past seven years.
Mary Yang, in a January 5 article for NPR’s Your Money titled “America needs Carpenters and Plumbers. Gen Z doesn’t seem interested,” reports:
The application rate for young people seeking technical jobs — like plumbing, building, and electrical work — dropped by 49% in 2022 compared to 2020, according to data from online recruiting platform Handshake shared with NPR.
This contraction in the number of younger applicants and drop in the share of construction workers ages 15–54 does not make one optimistic about any meaningful reduction in the tradespeople shortage within the foreseeable future.
The Need to Revitalize Abounds
In our earlier blog, we focused on the shortage of teachers, truckers, and tradespeople.
As the foregoing discussion demonstrates that shortage remains, but the shortage is not just in those occupations. It exists in virtually all industries and in occupations at all levels here in the U.S.
The need to be addressed in order to reduce these labor shortages is much more difficult than simply repairing a decaying road, bridge, or building in the physical infrastructure. It is a need to revitalize our human infrastructure.
There are a variety of definitions for revitalize. Our preferred definition comes from the Cambridge English Dictionary: revitalize: to make something grow, develop, or become successful again.
In 2023, there is an abounding need for the revitalization of our human infrastructure. That need is complex and varies from industry to industry and occupation to occupation. Consequently, the revitalization approach must be tailored and multidimensional rather than generic and universal.
As the U.S. Chamber of Commerce states, “No one solution to industry labor shortages or employee retention exists. Nor are any solutions appropriate for all industries or employers.”
Fortunately, there are numerous revitalization initiatives underway undertaken by many groups. Here are three examples:
- Through its America Works initiative, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is “… identifying the actions employers can take to offer good jobs to Americans. Businesses can increase their hiring pools by removing barriers to entering the workforce by expanding childcare access and “second-chance” hiring, and provide opportunities for new and existing staff to be upskilled and reskilled on the job.”
- As we described in our Labor Day blog this year, unions and workers are organizing again to “modify the rules of the game and level the playing field so that it is a fair place for workers to engage.”
- According to the Association of Builders and Contractors, its members participate in “… more than 800 apprenticeship, craft, safety, and management education programs — including more than 300 government-registered apprenticeship programs across 20 different construction occupations….ABC members invested $1.6 billion in 2021 to educate 1.3 million course attendees…”
Unfortunately, there is one area which contributes significantly to the labor shortage in many industries in which there have been no strong initiatives. That area is revitalizing the flow of immigrants to fill jobs in the United States.
On December 22, 2022, Vanessa Yurkevich published an article for CNN Business titled “America needs immigrants to solve its labor shortage.” In her article, she cites “new research from the University of California-Davis” showing that at the end of 2021 “there were close to 2 million fewer working-age immigrants in the United States than there would have been if pre-pandemic immigration continued unchanged.”
Yurkevich states that the “biggest impact (of the shortages) comes to industries like construction, agriculture, and hospitality — which are reliant on immigrant workers.” Workers in those industries primarily hold lower pay and lower skill jobs. She notes, however, that “about 1 million of the 2 million potential immigrants who were lost during the pandemic were college educated…These workers would be considered ‘high-skilled workers’, potentially coming to the US on H-1B specialty visas.”
On August 18, 2023, Johannes Lang and Zuzana Sepla published an opinion piece for The Hill in which they declared “American policymakers need to wake up to a new reality. America is running out of workers, and immigration must be part of the solution.”
One of the recommendations that Lang and Sepla provide to implement this solution is that “Congress and the Department of Labor should specify more comprehensively a list of occupations with critical worker shortages and ensure that labor mobility pathways allow levels of migration sufficient to address the employers’ needs.” They also recommend that “the executive” could “adjust the definition of seasonality” for agricultural jobs and raise the H-2B cap for non-agricultural jobs.
We do not know if Lang and Sepla’s proposed initiatives are the right ones. We do know that America needs more immigrants and a strategic process in place in order to address its labor shortage problems and to revitalize this nation.
In conclusion, America is a nation built by and for the people. It was built on their backs and brains. Its human infrastructure defined and developed its physical infrastructure.
We have made the investment to repair our country’s physical infrastructure. It is time to make a comparable investment in revitalizing our human infrastructure. The return on that investment will be a country and citizenry that is better, stronger, and more successful for decades to come.