Jan 25, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Buttigieg: We need more workers to build billion-dollar projects

Illustration of an American flag with a railroad track being built on one of the stripes with little construction workers

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The United States needs more workers and tradespeople to fill all the jobs tied to massive, newly announced infrastructure investments, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg tells Axios.

Where is stands: "We need to be a country that puts the right level of focus and respect toward those educational tracks that may not have anything to do with a college degree but that do require a lot of talent and skill, and lead to great pay as well," Buttigieg says.

Driving the news: President Biden announced nearly $5 billion in funding for major transportation projects during a visit Thursday to Superior, Wisconsin — part of an effort to tout his administration's investments in long-overdue infrastructure projects.

  • The largest is a $1 billion effort to replace the Blatnik Bridge, a major connection between Superior, Wisconsin, and Duluth, Minnesota.
  • Nearly 40 projects were announced, including a new bridge between Vancouver, Washington, and Portland, Oregon; an offshore wind terminal off California; and a new container terminal for the Port of New Orleans.

Between the lines: What all these projects have in common, Buttigieg says, is that they're large and complex and couldn't be built without dedicated funding.

  • Until the passage of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law in 2021, such projects had been neglected, causing bridges and roads to decay, straining regional economies and even putting safety at risk, he adds.

Where it stands: The Biden administration has so far announced more than $400 billion in funding under the program for more than 40,000 projects — but there's immense demand to fund long-neglected projects.

  • For the latest round of grants totaling nearly $5 billion, for example, the DOT received more than 300 applications seeking more than $50 billion.

What they're saying: "Part of what we're doing is setting up a pipeline of projects, from the ones that are already in physical motion to others that we're funding now, but it'll take a couple more years to get them out of the engineering and design phase," Buttigieg tells Axios.

  • "But what it adds up to over the span of this decade is I think the biggest infrastructure decade for America since the Eisenhower era."

The economic payoff will take time, Buttigieg adds.

  • "We're only beginning to feel it. I think it is reflected in the highs that we've seen in terms of construction employment in the U.S."
  • "But again, the bulk of these [projects] are only now beginning to move into the construction phase."

Yes, but: "There's no question that the proportions of this package will test the productive capacity of the country," Buttigieg says.

  • "It's true in a lot of areas: supply chains, raw materials, but the biggest of all is our skilled workforce."

What's next: States have so far invested $39 million of infrastructure law money to train workers for construction jobs and other transportation-related occupations.

  • Construction unions have also begun gearing up to train skilled workers, Buttigieg says.
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