How we should prepare to rebuild America's infrastructure

While pundits believe that little will happen legislatively in the coming year under a divided Congress, Democratic leaders pledging to prioritize a “transformational investment in America’s infrastructure” may enable President Trump to get some traction on a key campaign promise.

It is no secret that America’s schools, bridges and highways are deteriorating from coast to coast. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. infrastructure a D+ grade last year and estimated there is a $2 trillion, 10-year investment gap. If lawmakers on both sides of the aisle can find common ground on contentious policy issues and secure a sustainable funding source, an infrastructure bill could prove to be a bipartisan win.

As Congress and the Trump administration develop a legislative solution, policymakers at all levels of government must help create a business climate that provides the most value for the taxpayers’ infrastructure dollars. That includes encouraging open competition for publicly financed construction projects and awarding contracts to qualified businesses based solely on merit, regardless of labor affiliation. These policy cornerstones will create more construction industry career opportunities for all Americans. And with 500,000 open construction jobs in the United States right now, according to Associated Builders and Contractors estimates, it also means lawmakers must support measures to educate and grow America’s skilled construction workforce.

States play a key role in creating the conditions for infrastructure investments to pay off, with varying levels of success. Each year, ABC ranks all 50 states and the District of Columbia by their construction business climate based on key policy areas that affect the ability of construction companies to do business: prevailing wage laws, project labor agreement mandates, Right to Work status and use of public-private partnerships, as well as commitment to developing a productive and safe workforce through career and technical education opportunities. These policy and educational priorities are the foundation of a free-enterprise approach to construction, which creates a level playing field for all construction contractors to compete for work and build safely, efficiently and effectively.

This year, Florida climbed from number nine to number one on the Merit Shop Scorecard, pushing Virginia out of the top slot based on an increased commitment to workforce development. Michigan saw the biggest gains, climbing 17 spots from number 24 to number seven with the repeal of its prevailing wage law in 2018. California and Illinois round out the bottom of the rankings due to controversial policies that restrict free enterprise within the construction industry. 

For states that have dropped or consistently rank low on the Merit Shop Scorecard, this tool can help policymakers make changes to create a climate that supports, rather than hinders, the construction industry in their states. With effective policies, states can increase economic growth, which leads to more construction projects and job creation for residents. These policies also spur greater confidence for the small, family-owned businesses that make up the majority of the industry. In fact, 71 percent of the construction workforce works for construction companies that employ less than 100 people.

Expanding programs that develop the workforce of the future is critical. Demand for construction services is at an all-time high, according to ABC’s Construction Backlog Indicator. Growing both U.S. Department of Labor-registered and industry-recognized apprenticeship programs as well as other earn-while-you learn craft skills programs will provide hard-working Americans with opportunities to pursue well-paying careers in the industry that builds our airports, bridges and water treatment plants.

While the path forward is currently unclear, American taxpayers are supportive of repairing and rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure. In fact, a Gallup poll found that the majority of Americans rate a major infrastructure renewal spending package as President Trump’s most important campaign promise. As Congressional leadership and President Trump work toward an infrastructure solution, it is essential that leaders at the state and local level also collaborate on policies to meet the demand for a next-generation workforce, ensure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely on infrastructure investments and support state economic growth. 

Ben Brubeck is vice president of regulatory, labor and state affairs at Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC).