On the front lines of efforts to rebuild the country’s infrastructure under a plan central to President Joe Biden’s re-election pitch are the inmates in the Mansfield and Richland correctional institutions in Ohio.
Prisoners are attending a local community college program training them to climb 150-foot cellphone towers to install and repair equipment needed to expand broadband and 5G internet access, preparing them for jobs that companies have been desperate to fill once they leave incarceration.
“We’ve got more jobs than people,” Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, a Republican who leads the state’s workforce efforts, said in an interview. “In the past, someone would have said, ‘You’re spending this money [on inmates] and taking my job.’ But now, nobody wants these jobs. Nobody’s waiting in line for these jobs. They can’t find anybody to take them.”
Expanding broadband access is just one of the areas in which state and industry officials are scrambling to find workers as $550 billion in new federal infrastructure funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was passed in 2021, begins to come their way. But with unemployment hovering around historic lows, they are turning to whatever untapped pockets of potential workers they can find to fill the hundreds of thousands of jobs economists expect the federal spending to create.
“There’s a real math problem of where do these workers come from,” said Mike Bartlett, the program manager for postsecondary and workforce success at the National League of Cities. “We’re seeing cities and localities turn to alternative pools of talent or talent that was always there but wasn’t always necessarily tapped or folks who had barriers to entering the labor market.”
Finding and training enough workers will be key to achieving the ambitious infrastructure goals that have become central to Biden’s re-election bid as he makes the case for how his policies have boosted the economy.
Biden traveled last week to Wisconsin, where he talked about how the federal government is helping replace aging bridges, improve the Milwaukee airport, expand high-speed internet access and replace lead pipes. He went on to attack Republicans for having voted against the plan.
“We used to be No. 1 in the world in infrastructure, but over time we slipped to the 13th-best infrastructure — 13th-best infrastructure in the world from No. 1,” Biden told the crowd in Wisconsin. “How can you be the best economy in the world with a second-rate infrastructure? Not a joke — how can you do that?”
But the wave of federal dollars comes at a time when companies have already been struggling to find workers, particularly in some fields that will be needed the most to complete the infrastructure projects, like welders, electricians and broadband technicians. The Association of Builders and Contractors, a trade group representing the commercial and industrial construction industry, estimates there will be 500,000 unfilled construction jobs this year. The group expects most of the hiring related to the infrastructure law to start next year and ramp up throughout 2025 and 2026.
“We’re in this situation where we’ve already got this skilled labor shortage, and now we’ve got all this money that’s coming in,” said Ben Brubeck, the vice president of regulatory, labor and state affairs for Associated Builders and Contractors, a national trade group. “It’s sort of a perfect storm of things happening right now.”
The construction worker shortage, which the industry has been struggling with for years, is largely being driven by a wave of baby boomers who are retiring from the industry and a lack of new workers coming into the construction trades, Brubeck said.
Meanwhile, the building boom has continued in the private sector, including for new semiconductor manufacturing plants spurred by separate legislation to encourage companies to build chip production facilities in the U.S. In Ohio, for example, work on a $20 billion Intel semiconductor facility began last year and will need an estimated 7,000 workers.
All that competition for workers could result in projects’ being delayed and costing more because of higher wages, on top of material costs that are already up 40% since before the coronavirus pandemic, Brubeck said.
“There’s a lot of concern that taxpayers aren’t really getting the best bargain for their investments,” he said. “There are going to be some serious delays, I think, because there won’t be enough labor in certain markets.”
Biden administration officials said the increases in wages and competition among workers aren’t necessarily a bad thing. They hope the jobs created by the new infrastructure law come with good pay, benefits and worker protections. The administration is also instituting policies to encourage the hiring of unionized workers for the jobs and to make sure the labor force comes from the communities where the projects are being built.
“The way we look at it is that a strong jobs market is a good thing,” a senior administration official said. “The idea that employers have to compete to provide good jobs is a feature, not a bug, of the president’s economic theory.”
Still, the administration has been working with local governments and employers on a variety of programs to try to build up that workforce with training and apprenticeship programs, with a focus on trying to bring more women and people of color into the workforce and recruiting workers from lower-income areas.
One of those programs is aimed at lower-income single mothers in Missoula, Montana, which hopes to use the federal dollars to repair its aging water infrastructure and modernize its energy use to reduce carbon emissions. Mayor Jordan Hess said the city is working with other communities and the Labor Department to find ways to remove child care barriers that have been keeping single moms out of the job market.
“If we’re going to build a new economy, we’ve got to figure out the workforce,” Hess said.
In the area of broadband internet, 23,000 to 35,000 more workers will be needed to meet the increased demand spurred by $65 billion in federal funds to improve internet access to some of the 30 million people who live in areas with no broadband access, according to the Government Accountability Office.
In Ohio, the first group of eight inmates started training as tower technicians in May and is expected to be fully trained by December. Twice a week, the inmates, who meet certain safety criteria, travel outside the prison to a training program run by a local community college. Once they are fully certified, the inmates will be able to start working in the job as salaried employees several months before they are released so they can save up money to have for housing and transportation once they are released, which studies have found helps lower recidivism.
The director of the state Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, Annette Chambers-Smith, said employers across a variety of industries, who once would have refused to hire ex-convicts, have been coming to the department looking for workers. She sees it as a win not just for employers, but also for the inmates.
“We release about 18,000 people a year, and those are all people that need jobs and will be more successful if they go into the workforce,” Chambers-Smith said. “We already know that if we can get someone a job, they’re much less likely to re-offend. Jobs and housing are what helps keep people free.”
The program being offered to the inmates is also available free to any worker across the state who is interested in the positions, she said.
In some ways, the inmates are well-suited for the work. Jennifer Sanders, the superintendent of the Ohio Central School System, which provides education and training to prisoners, said a criterion she was given by the companies that will go on to employ the tower technicians is that they have to be risk-takers to be willing to work 150 feet in the air.
“I kind of chuckled. I was like, ‘Oh, we’ve got that covered,’” Sanders said. “We want to make sure that our employers see the value of hiring this clientele. It’s been interesting, because the employers, I think, are very hopeful this population will be an answer for them.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com