Huffington Post Op-Ed: America’s Energy Infrastructure – It’s Where the Good-Paying Jobs Are

Sean McGarvey is President of North America’s Building Trades Unions

The United States is the world’s largest economy. Yet, in the last two decades, our national economic growth rate has been declining.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s the average growth rate for the United States was above 4 percent. In the 1970s and 1980s, it still stood above 3 percent.

But, since the beginning of the 21st century, our annual average growth rate has been barely above 2 percent.

And to make matters worse, since 1979 the vast majority of American workers have seen their hourly wages stagnate or decline.

Fortunately, there is a solution staring us in the face that can help to alleviate both of these dilemmas, not to mention provide the opportunities for historically disadvantaged populations (such as communities of color, women, military veterans, and urban youth) to gain access to formal apprenticeship training and education.

It’s America’s energy infrastructure.

Recent studies have found that essential infrastructure improvements in just the oil and natural gas industry could, over the 2014-2025 timeframe, encourage as much as $1.14 trillion in new private capital investment, support 1.15 million new jobs, and add $120 billion on average per year to our nation’s GDP.

The 14 national and international unions that comprise North America’s Building Trades Unions estimate that 50% of our collective membership of over 3 million skilled craft professionals in the United States and Canada are employed in energy-related industries.

And we have worked diligently to ensure that those jobs are associated with strong community wage and benefit standards, in addition to commitments to couple such work with job training investments.

By working with industry to clear the way for additional energy infrastructure investments, we are protecting and preserving some of the few remaining occupations in America that cannot be outsourced to foreign countries or decimated by “low-road” business models that are centered upon a low-wage, low-skill, easily exploitable workforce.
That is why our rank and file members and our signatory contractors collectively fund, to the tune of roughly one billion dollars a year, a nationwide network of 1,600 local joint labor-management apprenticeship training programs, or JATCs. They are regulated by the Department of Labor or State Apprenticeship councils and they are governed by a Board of Trustees made-up of equal numbers of contractors and labor representatives.

If the Building Trades training system, which includes both apprentice-level and journeyman-level training, was a degree granting college or university, it would be the largest degree granting college or university in the United States — over 5 times larger than Arizona State University. If it was a K-12 school district, it would be the fourth largest school district in the US, only behind New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

And there is no taxpayer money involved in this system. Our members contribute a portion of their hourly wage and contractors contribute out of their own pockets.

We are also successfully working with community leaders to leverage both public and private investments in capital construction projects to create structured career-training opportunities for historically underserved communities, such as women, minorities and veterans. Through these efforts, and others, we now boast 100 pre-apprenticeship programs to ready students for the academic and real world challenges of being a union apprentice.

The Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4 project in Georgia is a prime example.

They are the first new nuclear units to be built in the U.S. in over 30 years, and at peak construction will require the services of roughly 5,000 skilled craft professionals.

In order to satisfy the skilled workforce demands of a project of this magnitude, and in a rural location no less, North America’s Building Trades Unions worked in partnership with Georgia Power and Southern Company, as well as the Augusta, GA Building Trades Council, to put in place a formalized apprenticeship-readiness program that would focus on the recruitment of people from historically neglected communities within the vicinity of the Vogtle site.

People like Dawn Renee Benitez, a one-time Staff Sergeant with the U.S. Army who served with distinction, earning an Iraq Campaign Medal with a Campaign Star. Like all too many of America’s military veterans these days, Dawn found it increasingly difficult to find meaningful employment and career opportunities in civilian life.

But through the joint efforts of Southern Company, Georgia Power and North America’s Building Trades Unions and its “Helmets to Hardhats” program, Dawn is now on the path to securing a stable and prosperous career as a union iron worker through an apprenticeship with Ironworkers Local 709 in Augusta, GA.

As of June 2016, the Vogtle apprenticeship-readiness program had graduated 64 students, 80 percent of whom are persons of color; and 40 percent are women.

In real world terms, it means that in Right-to-Work states like Georgia, skilled craft professionals are averaging $30-35 an hour working at the Vogtle site. And that means those workers are more than able to provide for their families while receiving union-provided healthcare and pension benefits.

To be sure, for any given energy infrastructure project, there are three components – Industry, Labor, and Government.

Industry wants to grow, labor wants to create good middle class jobs, and the government wants safety and environmental concerns adequately addressed. But the third leg of this stool – government – is increasingly proving to be an adversary, instead of an advocate of the first two.

Comments from the current Administration such as “eliminating the dash for gas” are only superseded by the lack of support for gas to back-up the intermittent nature of renewable energy. There is also a less than ambitious support system for carbon capture and sequestration at power plants and industrial facilities; a virtual vendetta against hydraulic fracturing and enhanced oil recovery; and of course, there was the denial of the Keystone XL pipeline.

North America’s Building trades unions stand ready to work with industry, with Congress, and with local governments and agencies, to find innovative funding mechanisms, sensible regulations and a collaborative tripartite relationship. Our desire is to bolster America’s leadership in the energy industry and put a floor under the middle class while creating millions of family-sustaining, jobs, along with vast opportunities for career training in the skilled trades.

But training and education programs like ours must have market certainty. So when redundant regulations and politically-motivated lawsuits funded by billionaire environmental advocates are aimed squarely at killing energy infrastructure projects, it hinders our ability to create jobs and prepare the next generation of construction workers for tomorrow.

A major part of the solution to anemic economic growth, as well as job and wage stagnation, is staring us in the face.

All we have to do is create an atmosphere through which we can more easily reach out and grab it.

Click here to view on the Huffington Post.