Who will rebuild our infrastructure?

Joe Hughes and Guillermo Perez

Our nation faces two great challenges when it comes to creating lasting prosperity for working people — infrastructure and demographics. While these may seem like separate issues, they’re actually closely intertwined and the answer to both is a compassionate and smart reform of our current broken system of immigration.

For the first time in more than 20 years, the U.S. has scored above a D on the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Report Card for America's Infrastructure, but that C-minus grade is still troubling. The consensus in Washington is that now is finally the time to make the long-overdue investments in public infrastructure that will lead to increased productivity and prosperity for generations to come. The problem is, who will provide the labor to build and sustain the infrastructure we need?

Demographically speaking, the U.S. currently lacks the workforce to meet this demand.  According to the Migration Policy Institute, as the current U.S. population skews older and older we can anticipate “dark predictions for the future ratio of workers to retirees, the solvency of the Social Security system, and the growth of the U.S. labor force and economy.”

The new diverging diamond interchange for the I-83 exit 4 in Shrewsbury Township is shown Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. East Forrest Avenue is positioned at top of image. Dawn J. Sagert photo

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If the Biden administration’s multi-trillion-dollar recovery proposals — which include investment in “hard infrastructure” like roads, transportation, and utility systems as well as investments in “soft infrastructure” like child care, preschool, and community college — become law, the MPS predicts “substantial additional demand for workers in construction, manufacturing, education, child care, and related services, which are sectors that have often relied on immigrants.”

The reasons for the growing dependency on immigrant labor (including undocumented immigrant labor) in these infrastructure-related sectors are two-fold.

First, rising levels of formal education attainment among the U.S. workforce means fewer and fewer U.S.-born workers are willing to take jobs that require less in the way of formal education. In 1970, slightly more than half of U.S. residents ages 25 and older had a high school diploma and today that figure is 90% with those with four or more years of college education rising from 11% to 39%.

Second, the U.S. population is skewing older. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that for the first time in U.S. history, seniors will outnumber minor children by 2034. By 2040, one-in-five U.S. residents will be 65 or older. This spells disaster as fewer and fewer working-age people will be expected to support more and more retirees. 

“Because immigrants tend to come to the United States in their prime working years, a steady flow of immigrants can greatly help,” notes the MPS, “by supporting the growth of the U.S. workforce, filling specific labor market gaps, and helping to maintain a higher worker-to-retiree ratio as the country finds its way through the retirement years of the baby boom generation.”

We currently need about 17 million workers to fulfill infrastructure roles that already exist. With President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan, millions of jobs are becoming available. There is training available through institutes like IUPAT District 57’s at FTI of Western PA. But where are the workers? Where are the millions of workers banging on our doors to get great jobs in the building and finishing trades?  

Our government’s current approach to growing the economy operates on the mistaken assumption that native-born workers will fill this demand, but the reality is that without a major influx of immigrant workers (which would include normalizing the status of millions of currently undocumented workers residing in the United States), we will never have the workforce we need to create enduring prosperity and good-paying jobs for all workers, foreign and native-born.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has developed research that points us to a clear and overarchingly beneficial solution — increase immigration and provide a pathway to citizenship to the millions of undocumented workers who are already working and contributing to building and maintaining both our “hard” and “soft” infrastructures.

The U.S. rose to great prominence economically, in part, by embarking on huge infrastructure projects such as the Erie Canal and the intercontinental railroad. Neither of these would have been possible without immigrant laborers working and dying under the cruelest and most exploitative working conditions.

The same is true of the mining and steelmaking industries that developed in southwestern Pennsylvania. Again, none of it possible without historic numbers of immigrants entering the country and working the most dirty and dangerous jobs imaginable. 

These immigrants and their offspring — as well as the millions of African Americans who migrated north and west as part of the Great Migration — would later join the ranks of organized labor in unprecedented numbers and usher in the greatest period of broadly-felt economic prosperity the world had ever seen.

We can do it again — this time without the cruelty and exploitation — by passing a comprehensive immigration reform that guarantees workplace protections to all workers through the granting of permanent residency and a path to citizenship to the millions of undocumented workers on whom we increasingly depend for our economic future.  Simply put, we need them and they need us.

— Joe Hughes is the director of government relations at District Council 57, and Guillermo Perez is the president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement.