State must develop workers to meet infrastructure demands

As we pull ourselves out of the pandemic, it is time for the construction industry and its partners to develop a stronger workforce in Pittsburgh and throughout the state. That can happen with federal funding, which we see on the near-term horizon as a result of the infrastructure bill that will likely be passed by fall.

Large-scale construction job training efforts would serve the construction industry, as well as those displaced in other industries. Now is the time to leverage existing programs for workforce development and create unique partnerships with the local construction industry, universities and trade schools to take advantage of the federal initiative and prepare a workforce able to meet the demands of the future.

Pittsburgh, and the state in general, are struggling to keep up with workforce and construction workforce development needs. The American Society of Civil Engineers publishes a report card on the status of each state’s infrastructure — based on evaluations of roads and bridges, transit systems, dams and levees, parks and recreation, energy and water resources by local engineers — every four years. In the past two reports, Pennsylvania received a C-.

Pittsburgh needs to develop a stronger talent pipeline, with more internships and community outreach. Companies can create recruitment partnerships to work with high school or vocational recruitment organizations to identify young workers looking for alternative career options to college. The Constructors Association of Western Pennsylvania promotes apprenticeship programs, but it focuses solely on the highway industry and needs help from the entire community to recruit, retain and encourage new workers to enter the construction field.

A prime example of an effective partnership is the Los Angeles World Airport, which recently developed a program called BuildLAX to provide a forum for local businesses to prepare for doing business with it on its $14 billion capital improvement plan. This program is showing great success in recruiting and training a workforce and providing opportunities for existing and new small businesses. While Pittsburgh may not locally have funding for projects of that magnitude, there are many large-scale capital projects. Individual stakeholders, along with governments, industry and local education institutions, will need to partner to prepare for vital infrastructure projects in the next three years.

President Joe Biden’s administration is working to advance its infrastructure plan, “The American Jobs Plan.” This could bring needed resources to Pennsylvania to address the funding shortfalls faced by PennDOT and local municipalities. Regardless of the final budget of the plan, a version is expected to get through Congress, creating a unique opportunity for the construction industry and industry partners in this area.

As director of a laboratory and consulting firm whose focus is on failure investigations of concrete infrastructure elements, I see firsthand the results of inadequate quality assurance and quality control of materials, and poor project implementation. Scarier yet, I see our state’s aging workforce being replaced by an inexperienced workforce not trained to meet construction infrastructure needs. As the COVID-19 numbers are dropping even faster than we could have hoped, the Pittsburgh metro area needs to rapidly prepare for the infrastructure needs of the near future with a prepared workforce.

April Snyder is Director, Concrete Materials Laboratory, RJ Lee Group