Robert Reich on Infrastructure Jobs: Skilled Workers and White Males Need Not Apply


[I know this post is a bit dated. It has been hiding in my “drafts” folder for close to a month.]

Robert Reich is a very intelligent man. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration and is a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley. Discussing President Obama’s Stimulus Plan, Reich notes it will repair and upgrade “the nation’s roads, bridges, ports, levees, water and sewage system, public-transit systems, electricity grid, and schools.” OK. Sounds good.

However, given the present labor market:

[T]he stimulus will just increase the wages of the professionals who already have the right skills rather than generate many new jobs in these fields. And if construction jobs go mainly to white males who already dominate the construction trades, many people who need jobs the most — women, minorities, and the poor and long-term unemployed — will be shut out.

His Solutions?

Many low-income and low-skilled workers — women as well as men — could be put directly to work providing homes and businesses with more efficient and renewable heating, lighting, cooling, and refrigeration systems; installing solar panels and efficient photovoltaic systems; rehabilitating and renovating old properties, and improving recycling systems.


I’d suggest that all contracts entered into with stimulus funds require contractors to provide at least 20 percent of jobs to the long-term unemployed and to people with incomes at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

The first would be a boondoggle and the second suggestion is unworkable.

I can visualize unskilled workers doing some of the labor for these projects but how can Reich expect to exclude the skilled from more complicated tasks? Honestly, I have no idea of what the man was thinking. Infrastructure is not simply filling in potholes, it is building dams and bridges, projects that require a great deal of expertise and skill. Also notice that Reich does not say a certain percentage of federal money should go to independent contractors and other small businesses, he mandates that twenty percent of the workers must be of a specific demographic.

Many cities and states have programs that assist women and minorities in starting their own companies. These programs deserve to be supported and expanded. However, the federal government should not mandate the race and ethnicity of employees, whether in the private or public sector.

I used to find conservatives bawling about “left-wing social engineering” to be such a joke. But when liberals like Reich promote these sorts of policies, the conservatives may be on to something. Read all of Reich’s suggestions here.


[Construction workers, Empire State Building, NYC. Photo by Lewis W. Hine. CORRECTION: as a reader “Ryan” informs me in the comments below, the proper attribution is Charles C. Ebbets.]

6 responses »

  1. I’m all for a stimulus program that helps working Americans and I agree with you on Reich’s plan to increase minorities in the building trades. I think the problem with the original plan and Reich’s suggestion is that it copies FDR’s plan to stimulate the economy without taking into consideration today’s realities. You simply cannot take someone off the street and stick them in a construction project without significant training. Do we really need that many more people in construction especially after the stimulus projects dry up? If the gov’t is going to invest in training and re-skilling the unemployed, it should be much more thoughtful about where the country needs workers (i.e., mapping out the growth industries) instead of creating a pool of low-level construction workers who will be unemployed in a year or two.

  2. Hi,

    I would like to use this photograph for an article on May Day in a leading Bengali newspaper published out of Calcutta, India.

    Please give me the required permission.


    Rnagan Chakravarty

  3. Dear Rangan,

    I cannot give you the required permission as I do not own the rights to this photo. The Estate of Lewis Hine are the people to contact. I do not have any contact information for them but you may be able to dig up their address online.

    I’m sorry I cannot be of more assistance in this matter.


  4. Although Hine was commissioned to, and did take many pictures of the construction of the Empire State Building, this is not one of those photos. Hine’s photos were taken in 1930.

    This is a picture commissioned as part of a group, by the “New York Times,” to show the construction of the GE building at Rockefeller Center. The picture, “Lunchtime atop a Skyscraper” was taken on September 29th, 1932 by Charles Ebbets. A similar picture, “Men asleep on a Girder” was also taken at this same time, of the same beam, by Ebbets.

    An additional note, per Wikipedia:
    The copyright owner of the photograph (“Lunchtime atop a skyscriper”), the Bettman Archive, did not recognize Charles C. Ebbets as the photographer until October 2003 (reportedly after months of investigation by a private investigation firm). However, authorship of the photo, a popular poster, is mistakenly listed as ‘Unknown’ on many prints.

  5. I totally agree that it takes a lot of training to produce a good building trades journeyman. We train for 5 years as apprentices, and continue after we turn out as journeymen to retain more certifications. There are over 20 different welding certifications for a Steamfitter, and we also work on copper, threaded pipe, victalic, PVC, polyethelene, and an assortment of other types of piping. Our first five years of training is just the beginning.
    We also have around 25% unemployment right now, so I don’t know what we’re going to do with all of the reemployment trainees!

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