by Steven Malanga at city-journal.org
The Transportation secretary’s comments on the race of hardhat workers were as misleading as they were divisive.
Transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg sparked controversy in mid-February when he gave a speech focusing on the racial makeup of construction workers. Criticizing the building industry for too often not having a workforce that looks like “they came from anywhere near the neighborhood,” Buttigieg urged government officials to tear down the “barriers” that created these alleged inequities and to ensure that the industry “builds a workforce that reflects the community.”
His remarks drew fire mainly because they came in the wake of the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment and the controlled burning of toxic chemicals from the site, which Buttigieg had yet to discuss when he made his construction-industry speech. Former Ohio state senator Nina Turner, a Democrat, accused Buttigieg of “ignoring East Palestine,” and added, “We deserve better than this.” Others criticized Buttigieg for focusing on race rather than skills and training in an industry’s workforce.
But Buttigieg’s remarks, part of an increasingly single-minded racial emphasis in the Biden administration, were also misleading. The construction trades are among the most diverse in America. As a proportion of construction workers, whites are underrepresented relative to their share of the broader population. More to the point, the biggest problem the industry faces right now is not racial imbalance but an extreme shortage of workers that threatens to undermine the rebound of construction post-Covid. Worker scarcity is opening an opportunity for young people of all races to find a career in the industry—yet their biggest roadblock to getting jobs may be Biden policies favoring firms that use workers in unions, some with a notorious history of excluding minorities.
Buttigieg seems unaware that the construction industry has been transforming dramatically for more than a decade. The share of whites working in construction trades has declined since 2010, from 63.2 percent to 52.9 percent. In that time, the industry has become more accommodating to minorities. The share of Hispanic workers has grown from 20.2 percent to 27.7 percent. Black workers, meantime, constitute another 11.1 percent of the industry.
Jobs in this well-paying, though highly cyclical, industry have been growing along with the rest of the American economy. Last year, construction employment hit an all-time high, and estimates suggest further growth this year—if companies can find enough workers. Just days before Buttigieg’s untimely speech, a construction trade group projected that the industry would need 546,000 new workers in 2023 alone, owing to job growth and worker retirements. One problem: nearly a quarter of all workers in the industry are over 55 years old. Most of these are experienced and skilled workers likely to retire in the next decade.
Industry groups, often in partnership with trade schools and community colleges, are trying to fill this gap. The Associated Builders and Contractors, a trade group, runs some 800 apprenticeship programs training workers around the country, representing $1.6 billion worth of investment. Beyond training, businesses know that recruiting more workers means raising wages and benefits in an industry that already pays well for skilled blue-collar labor. Wages in the industry average $30 an hour, not including benefits, but can go much higher for the most experienced hands.