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America needs fixing, so ramp up training and wages in the building trades

America needs fixing, so ramp up training and wages in the building trades
In Baltimore and other cities, there is vast opportunity for fixing and reusing old homes and buildings. “We’re historic preservationists,” says Nicholas Redding of Preservation Maryland. “But we can’t do what we do if there’s no one available to do the physical work.”

Three statistics from federal agencies make the case for a renewed national effort to train men and women in building trades and the special skills needed for three specific purposes: To fix the country’s aging infrastructure, to save old houses for a new generation of homeowners, and to maintain our national parks for the next generation of Americans.

The numbers also underscore the foolishness of shutting doors to immigrants seeking asylum. We should be recruiting potential new workers at the border instead of treating them like dirt.

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The first number comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS says there are about 400,000 unfilled construction jobs across the country. This number has fluctuated between 200,000 and 350,000 over the last three years, but the government’s April estimate, while preliminary, is eye-popping. With the nation experiencing low unemployment, we still need more people in the building trades, and they need pay and benefits that get them to the middle class and sustainable careers.

Also from the BLS: The median age of an American construction worker is 42.5 years. While that is similar to the median for other occupations, there’s a significant drop-off among construction workers under age 25. So, while there are good efforts to train more people — Project JumpStart in Baltimore is an example — it seems clear that we do not have enough help.

Which is why it’s ridiculous for the president of the United States to claim, as his administration tries to make life even more miserable for migrants from Central America, that there’s no room for them here. “We can’t take you anymore,” President Donald Trump said in April. “Our country is full.”

But it’s not true. The Pew Research Center estimates that 7.6 million workers do not have legal permission to be here; most arrived years ago and overstayed their visas. Significantly, while 7.6 million sounds like a lot, the number of unauthorized immigrant workers actually fell by an estimated 625,000 between 2007 and 2017, years that mainly overlap a period of accelerated deportations during the Obama administration.

So, not only will rounding up “illegals” and deporting them hurt the businesses that employ them, but fighting off new arrivals — treating asylum seekers as “invaders” — is nuts. With baby boomers retiring, and given current population trends, the U.S. workforce needs more immigrants, not fewer.

But the president is fixated on immigration as a problem for the country.

Even the legal process — seeking asylum is legal — is being discouraged.

The Baltimore-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service supports programs for asylum seekers at the borders in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. LIRS volunteers in El Paso, Albuquerque and Phoenix receive families who have gone through the initial application process. Volunteers operating through churches provide shelter, clothing and food until the families make arrangements to settle elsewhere to await word on their status.

Nina Zelic, director of programs for LIRS, says the relief organization’s staff and volunteers received hundreds of migrants per week. Three weeks ago, she says, it all stopped. Families are being forced to wait in Mexico (many in the violent city of Juarez) and many are experiencing long waits to apply for asylum. Some have left. Some have tried to cross the border in other ways. Reuters reports that about 15,000 asylum seekers, mainly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, have been affected by the recent change in policy.

It’s not only inhumane. It hurts growth in the national economy and, specifically, the supply of skilled workers in the building trades.

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Now, here’s the third number from a federal agency: A backlog of nearly $12 billion in repairs or maintenance in our national parks. The National Park Service says it needs $6.15 billion for work on bridges, tunnels, parking areas and paved roads, and another $5.7 billion for buildings, campgrounds, trails, waste water systems, pipes, dams, marinas, ships, monuments, forts, towers and amphitheaters.

Even if $11 billion were available — if, say, the Pentagon could get by with just $707 billion in fiscal 2020 — we would still need skilled laborers to carry out the work. So, immigrants, unemployed or underemployed Americans, veterans, ex-offenders — there could be a big national apprenticeship program in the building trades. Train people so they will have the skills to earn a middle-class wage working on national parks, the big backlog of infrastructure projects and, in cities like Baltimore and older suburbs, for contractors who will be renovating old homes and buildings in the coming years.

There is vast opportunity for that in this middle-aged country — fixing stuff and training people to fix stuff — and Preservation Maryland is promoting an effort along these lines. The non-profit identifies and champions old buildings and places throughout the state that need to be saved. Last week, Preservation Maryland announced a new campaign to help the National Park Service expand apprenticeships across the country through its National Historic Preservation Training Center in Frederick. It’s called the Campaign for Historic Trades, and Preservation Maryland is now the official charitable partner of the training center. The idea is to recruit and prepare more men and women, between the ages of 18 and 30, for careers in construction generally and historic preservation specifically.

It’s really needed, says Nicholas Redding, Preservation Maryland’s executive director. “We’re historic preservationists. But we can’t do what we do if there’s no one available to do the physical work.”

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