America’s Crumbling Human Infrastructure:
The Critical Shortage of Teachers, Truckers and Tradespeople
The first quarter of 2022, provided conflicting signals regarding the condition of employment in America.
678,000 new jobs were added in February according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This far exceeded the expected job growth of around 400,000. Nonetheless, the BLS also reported that “The number of job openings was little changed at 11.3 million on the last business day of February…”
The unfilled jobs are important for all industries and occupations. The shortage of teachers, truckers, and tradespeople is critical.
This is the case because teachers, truckers, and tradespeople are pivotal to keeping the mind, circulatory system, and backbone of the country strong and healthy. They play essential roles in America’s human infrastructure, which is crumbling, in part, due to shortages in these occupations.
What is the nature of these shortages, why do they exist and what can be done to address them? Let us examine each, beginning with teachers.
The Teacher Shortage
The U.S. is short tens of thousands of teachers in public school systems nationally. In general, things are getting worse rather than better.
Lauren Camera in her March 28 piece for U.S. News & World Report notes that “As of January 2022, 44% of public schools reported having at least one teaching vacancy…Resignations accounted for 51% of the vacancies and retirements accounted for 21%.’
A press release issued by the National Education Association (NEA), which represents nearly 3 million educators on February 1, 2022 included the following:
- There are currently 567,000 fewer educators in America’s public schools than before the pandemic.
- Nationally, the ratio of hires to job openings in the education sector reached new lows as the 2021–2022 school year started.
- A survey conducted for the NEA, between January 14–24, 2022, revealed that more than half (55%) of members plan to leave education sooner than planned because of the pandemic, a significant increase from 37% in August.
The pandemic raised the teacher shortage above the line of visibility for the average citizen but it has been a problem for some time.
The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) issued a series of six reports, from March 26, 2019 to October 15, 2020, titled ‘Perfect Storm in the Teacher Labor Market,” examining “the magnitude” of the teacher shortage. The first report, drawing upon data from 2011 through 2015–2016, opens as follows:
The teacher shortage is real, large and growing, and worse than we thought.
When indicators of teacher quality (certification, relevant training, experience, etc.) are taken into account, the shortage is even more acute than currently estimated, with high-poverty schools suffering the most from the shortage of credentialed teachers.
The final EPI report presents a policy agenda comprised of four recommendations to address the primary factors contributing to the teacher shortage:
- Raise teacher pay to attract new teachers and keep teachers in their schools and the profession.
- Elevate teacher voice, and nurture stronger learning communities to increase teachers’ influence and sense of belonging.
- Lower the barriers to teaching that affect teachers’ ability to do their jobs and their morale.
- Develop professional supports that strengthen teachers’ sense of purpose, career development, and effectiveness.
The pandemic exacerbated all of the factors that drove people out of and away from the teaching profession. So, too, did some other intensifying issues, such as state legislatures taking greater control over what teachers can teach and how they can teach; parents confronting and calling out teachers in PTA and school board meetings; and students themselves feeling emboldened to act out and challenge the teacher’s authority in the classroom.
There is no question that there is a need for a full court press to keep those teachers who the NEA survey shows are “feeling burned out” in the classroom. There is also a need for an innovative agenda to bring new teachers into the classroom.
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona set out some of the elements for such an agenda in a speech he delivered at an educational summit hosted by the Carnegie Foundation in San Diego on March 28. According to Lauren Camera, the draft of that speech included: Prioritizing the use of federal relief aid to address the teacher shortage emergency. Raising teacher compensation. Establishing teaching as a registered apprenticeship. Investing in teacher residency programs. And having school districts boost the number of partnerships they have with educator preparation programs.
The Trucker Shortage
While there are a number of people fleeing the teaching profession early, they are not doing so to become truck drivers and take the long haul. That’s because the conditions of the average truck driver, from many perspectives, are far worse than those of teachers.
Peter S. Goodman of the New York Times, who has written evocatively about the plight of truckers, has put together the following five facts regarding them:
- The typical long-haul tractor-trailer driver registers 400 to 700 miles a day, or about 125,000 miles per year. That’s enough to circumnavigate the globe five times.
- The typical driver works 60 to 70 hours a week, including time waiting to load and unload, while spending some 300 days a year on the road.
- Only 7 percent of the between 300,000 and 500,000 so-called over-the-road truck drivers in the United States are women.
- The median annual pay for tractor-trailer drivers, who are typically paid by the mile, was about $47,000 as of May 2020. Since then, firms have raised pay while dispensing bonuses of up to $10,000 for new hires.
- Trucks haul more than $10 trillion of American goods per year, or more than 70 percent of all products shipped in the United States by value.
Those are troubling statistics. But, as the lead to Goodman’s Feb. 9, 2022 story on trucker Steven Graves points out, they only tell part of the story, “A 1,000-mile journey through the middle of America reveals the fundamental reason for truck driver shortages: It is a job full of stress, physical deprivation, and loneliness.”
Given this, it is no wonder, according to the American Trucking Association, that in 2021 there was a record deficit of 80,000 drivers. And the turnover rate at an average trucking company is more than 90%.
It didn’t use to be this way. As Robin Kaisler-Schatzlein observes in his March 15, 2022 New York Times article:
Before deregulation during the Carter administration, trucking was an industry with high union representation. But fears of inflation pushed the government to allow less regulated, nonunionized firms to compete with the unionized common carriers. That effectively took the bottom out of the labor market as companies raced to offer the lowest rates to customers wages were squeezed. Working conditions and pay cratered and truckers fled.
These conditions have persisted for decades. As Robert Costello, chief economist of the Trucking Association told Peter Goodman, “There is no silver bullet for fixing this. We need to get more people into the industry.”
That is easier said than done. The Economics Department of The Trucking Association implicitly notes this in its Executive Summary of the Driver Shortage Update 2021, stating:
Because there is no single cause of the driver shortage, that means there is no single solution…The solution to the driver shortage will most certainly require increased pay, regulatory changes and modifications to shippers’, receivers’ and carriers’ business practices to improve conditions for drivers.
If that solution is not developed and implemented, the Association projects that the trucker shortage by 2030 could reach 160,000 drivers.
The root causes of the tradespeople shortage are similar to, but different, than the root causes for the teacher shortage and the trucker shortage.
Wikipedia provides the following definition for tradesperson: A skilled worker who specializes in a particular trade (occupation or field of work).
Skilled tradespeople include, among others: plumbers, electricians, carpenters, machinists, and HVAC technicians. They work in industries such as construction and manufacturing, and in many small family-owned businesses. Most skilled trades require specialized training, obtained through educational institutions, on-the-job training, and/or apprenticeships.
Just as with teachers and truckers, there have been shortages of tradespeople for decades. These shortages were exacerbated by the pandemic and by other factors relating to the demographics of those in the skilled trades at this point in time.
In a posting on March 3, 2022, Tom Barkin, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, stated, “Skilled trades have a pipeline problem, and it may be getting worse.”
Conger Industries, a material handling company headquartered in Wisconsin, has prepared an excellent report on the skilled labor shortage, which identifies many of the reasons for this “pipeline problem.” They include:
- A disappearance of workplace apprenticeship programs since the 1980’s.
- 2.3 million construction workers left the industry during the Great Recession but only 1.2 million jobs were added back after that.
- About 5,900 baby boomers leaving the workforce each day. By 2030, all baby boomers will be at least 65 years old.
- Elimination of shop and vocational training in high school and a shift toward college prep classes in this 21st century.
- A younger generation that is more interested in white collar jobs than blue collar ones.
- Many family-owned skilled trade businesses closing their doors when the owners reach retirement because there are no family members interested in being successors.
The pandemic unleashed a torrent of tradespeople retirements and resignations, and contributed substantially to making the pipeline problem worse. As examples, consider: As Megan Leonhardt reports in her November 16, 2021 blog for Fortune, “Manufacturing quit rates are up 78% since February 2020. And, according to a model developed by Associated Builders and Contractors, “The construction industry will need to attract nearly 650,000 additional workers on top of the normal pace of hiring in 2022 to meet the demand for labor.”
Just as with teachers and truckers, there are no instant or magical solutions to the tradespeople shortage. There are answers, though.
In a May 2020 article on “Top HR Challenges in Manufacturing” for the Society of Human Resources Management, Tamara Lytle provides tips which include: tap into local high schools and colleges to get the word out about manufacturing careers; recruit populations under-represented in manufacturing, such as women and veterans; and beef up apprenticeship programs.
Tom Barkin of the Federal Reserve Bank proposes:
Employers and localities will need to take ownership of their education, training and credentialing pipelines. Employers can provide their own training, or can partner with community colleges to provide equipment, instructors and apprenticeship opportunities. States can simplify their licensing requirements and debottleneck their credentialing processes.
Repairing America’s Crumbling Human Infrastructure
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, commonly referred to as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, was signed into law by President Joe Biden on November 15, 2021. Although not as robust as the infrastructure bill that President Biden had proposed, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act will go a long way toward addressing the needs of America’s crumbling physical infrastructure.
President Biden had also proposed a bill that would have focused on a human infrastructure agenda which included: expanding the child tax credits; established paid family and medical leave; funding universal preschool and free community college; and additional action on climate change. At this point, there is little traction and no action on those human infrastructure needs.
There may be an opportunity, however, to introduce and pass bipartisan legislation that would begin the process of repairing the problems of America’s crumbling human infrastructure being created by the teacher, trucker, and tradespeople shortage. On March 2, 2022, Matt Sigelman, chairman of Emsi Burning Glass, and Ken Mehlman, partner at KKR and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, published a piece for Fortune titled “These bipartisan solutions can help ease America’s labor crisis.”
In their work, Sigelman and Mehlman set out the following four areas for legislation that can “ease that crisis”:
- Focus on jobs that move the needle for American competitiveness.
- Prepare students for jobs that matter.
- Build the skills of our existing workforce.
- Don’t leave anyone behind.
They don’t focus on teachers, truckers, and tradespeople specifically. But they might as well have. Think about it.
Teachers, truckers and tradespeople move the needle for America. When properly constructed and rewarded, these jobs matter for students. Securing workforce training and the right certificates and credentials provides the avenue for access to and advancement in these jobs. The shortage demands reaching out and enlisting women, people of color, and emphasizing skills-based as opposed to degree-based hiring.
In conclusion, as stated at the outset:
…teachers, truckers and tradespeople are pivotal to keeping the mind, circulatory system, and backbone of the country strong and healthy. They play essential roles in America’s human infrastructure which is crumbling, in part, due to shortages in these occupations.
Properly designed and implemented bipartisan legislation can reduce significantly, and eventually eliminate, those shortages and begin the process of repairing part of our crumbling human infrastructure. It is time to invest in and to make Teachers, Truckers and Tradespeople a trifecta that will be a winner for the people in those jobs and for America itself.
Originally published by the Frank Islam Institute for 21st Century Citizenship. For more information on what 21st century citizenship entails, and to see exemplars from around the world, please visit our website.