Recent comments made to a Washington Post article about new infrastructure spending raise a very large issue related to digging ditches. For years now many construction projects, involving hard physical labor out in the extreme hot and cold, have employed recent immigrants. However recent right-wing political voices as well as the recession have discouraged the immigration of laborers from poor nations. Will the current U.S. workforce be physically ready to put down their iPhones and laptops and pickup a shovel when the time comes?
Construction work actually requires great stamina and specific skills.
These are talents many U.S. citizens do not possess. Construction labor positions require physical strength, a strong work ethic, extreme caution, and the ability to tolerate harsh weather conditions. In addition to manual laborers, there will be huge requirements for civil engineers, foremen, welders, carpenters, heavy equipment operators, truck drivers, electricians, pipefitters, and other tradesmen commonly found at all large construction sites. A quick check of these occupations finds many job openings unfilled in several of those fields.
It is true that the collapse of construction industry, residential and commercial, has put many skilled laborers out of work. However there remains a shortage of truck drivers, welders, and civil engineers, not to mention people holding valid work papers, willing to lift a shovel all day long.
The supply of unemployed U.S. citizens willing to put down their pride and pick up a shovel is critical to a major part of President Obama's economic recovery plan. In the 1930's many of the people that took jobs at the highway, bridge, and dam construction sites were in far better physical shape. They arrived at WPA sites after long hikes on the road, often coming from failed dustbowl farms. They were so poor that the possibility of 8 or 10 hours of hard work really appealed to them. They left families behind to work for months in National Parks and sleep in old bunkhouses.
Americans are among the most overweight people in the world. Fat people have a tough time working outside all day in the hot sun. Our work ethic has devolved to meet the requirements of service jobs done behind counters, over telephones, and at computer workstations. The people that arrive to work the late shift at food processing plants, shipment processing facilities, and other remaining factories are often recent immigrants and people from urban neighborhoods.
Almost every time I visited a major construction job in the past five years I also heard Spanish being spoken. This new boom in infrastructure spending may bring a tremendous boost in employment to a group that has suffered the largest job losses in the past few months. Hispanic voters turned out in huge numbers in the last election to support President Obama. Election day could turn out to be their lucky day.