I opened up last Friday's newspaper to find an open letter to the nation's veterans from American Association of Railroads President Ed Hamberger. It invited them to apply for jobs at the nation's freight railroads, saying that veterans are "well-skilled, well disciplined, agile thinkers with can-do attitudes." The freight rail industry needs workers, period. Earlier in the year, the association predicted that the industry would hire 11,000 people for jobs that averaged $108,000 per year.
This hiring situation is not unique to freight rail. The movement of goods throughout the country is a great arena to find a job, particularly the kind of hands-on, outdoorsy, active job that used to be more plentiful when the manufacturing sector was booming. Infrastructure jobs pay well, require skills beyond just typing, and are the backbone of the country's economy.
The White House has been hammering on this point over the last several weeks, trying to remind the public and politicians that commerce needs a working transportation system to function effectively. Vice President Joe Biden visited CSX's freight rail terminal last week. He has also toured ports in Baltimore, Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C.
In a visit to the Port of New Orleans last week, President Obama emphasized the importance of trade to the economy and jobs: "Every $1 billion in exports supports nearly 5,000 jobs. …One of the things we should be focused on is helping more businesses sell more products to the rest of the world. And the only way those products get out is through facilities like this. Right now, exports are one of the brightest spots in our economy."
Obama has for years called on Congress to agree to his requests for more investment in bridges, ports, and rail systems to smooth the movement of goods throughout the country and to the rest of the world. Budget problems have left those pleas more or less ignored.
Yet infrastructure is still a great job haven, even without the extra government cash to upgrade the transportation systems. Ten years ago, the Labor Department identified transportation as a "high growth industry," saying that "employers are looking to help high school, technical school and community college graduates successfully enter the transportation industry." That's still true.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projected last year that the construction jobs, which encompass some infrastructure development, will grow by 3.9 percent by 2020 and that "transportation and warehousing" employment will grow by 1.9 percent. Together, that's about 2.7 million jobs.
What can contractors, port authorities, freight companies, and other participants in the transportation industry do to attract workers? Where are the employment needs? What are the challenges to recruiting workers? How difficult is it to learn the skills needed to work at a port or a freight company? Where can job seekers pick up those skills? How should transportation professionals create a pipeline of workers? Who else should be involved in the training process? If Congress suddenly finds the ability to fund more infrastructure investment, will the industry be ready to meet the demand for workers?