Biden’s infrastructure package headed for delays from workforce shortage, supply chain snares

President Biden‘s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package faces serious delays in implementation because of supply chain and workforce shortages.

The looming hangups to breaking ground on major highway, bridge and port projects include a scarcity of building supplies, inflated prices for materials and a scarcity of workers from engineers to ditch diggers, industry analysts say.

The White House has long said the package, which passed Congress last week after help from Republicans, will be a “once in a generation” rebuild of the nation’s roads and bridges.

“We’re looking forward to having shovels in the ground to begin rebuilding America. And for all of you at home who feel left behind and forgotten in an economy that’s changing so rapidly, this bill is for you,” Mr. Biden said. “They’ll see the effects of this bill probably starting within the next two to three months … as we get shovels in the ground. … Things are going to move.”

Yet infrastructure experts warn of long-running delays to get transportation projects off the ground.

One reason is a workforce shortage, which is likely to hit high-skill and low-skill infrastructure jobs.

On the high-skill front, the dearth of civil engineers to design and oversee projects threatens substantial delays to breaking ground on infrastructure.

Linda Bauer Darr, the president and CEO of the American Council of Engineering Companies, said the shortage resulted from strong competition from other sectors of the economy.

“America is simply not producing enough engineers, and for those who do get their engineering degree, we’re seeing talented young and midcareer professionals lured away from engineering by the tech sector and other industries,” Mrs. Darr said. “This needs to change. We need to attract more young people to the profession, particularly women and people of color.”

According to Dodge Analytics, 58% of civil engineers reported concerns about the “ability to hire skilled workers” for infrastructure projects in the last four months of 2020. That figure jumped to 69% by June.

Mrs. Darr said her group estimates that the White House infrastructure package will further stress the job market by creating 82,000 more openings in the engineering and design services sector over the next five years.

“I think the more we can raise awareness about the impactful work engineers do, the more we can grow our ranks,” she said.

Civil engineers say the emphasis on high-skill labor shortages ignores the real problem of low-skilled workers, specifically those in the construction industry.

Private and public civil engineering companies would adapt to the growing demand for high-skilled labor by relying more on technology and flexible work arrangements, said K.N. Gunalan, a past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

“The engineering part is probably not going to be a huge challenge,” he said. “COVID-19 has shown that a lot of the day-to-day job functions can be done virtually now, and for some engineers, it’s already second nature.”

Noting that 10.4 million jobs were open in August, Mr. Gunalan said the real problem would be finding low-skilled, manual laborers to help build infrastructure.

“I jokingly tell people it’s no longer sexy to be jackhammering a bridge deck or making construction repairs in the middle of the road on a cold day as opposed to sitting in the comfort of your house and trying to develop an app you hope will sell for billions,” he said. “But that’s what we’re going to need if we want to improve our infrastructure.”

Beyond labor market headaches, supply chain issues plaguing grocery stores, car dealerships and lumber yards will creep onto infrastructure job sites.

Access to construction materials and resources could make or break a project.

“I’m on a $500 million design-build project right now that’s moving,” Mr. Gunalan said. “The contractors are out there, but the supply chain issues persist. … I was just told there is a shortage of cement. It’s stuck on a barge somewhere.”

A lack of proper materials can easily drive up costs and delay the completion of a project. Complicating matters is that inflation, which has driven up wholesale prices by 8.6% over the past year, makes replacement materials costly.

Mr. Biden‘s emphasis on “buy American” provisions for federal procurement on infrastructure projects also adds to the difficulty.

“When you start enforcing the ‘buy American’ mandates, it can cause a big delay if contractors are relying on utilities and materials that come from overseas,” Mr. Gunalan said. “All of it adds up, especially when it already takes between six to 12 months to get a fairly complex project going.”

Although Mr. Biden‘s infrastructure bill does provide broad carve-outs for “buy American” mandates, the process to receive a federal waiver could take months.

The White House did not respond to The Washington Times’ inquiries for this report.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters