America has been watching the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, and all of us are wondering what happens next. Obviously, people will need to find ways to get their lives back together, but how do you even begin to do that when everything you own has been damaged beyond repair?
Experts are already estimating how much money it will cost to start the rebuilding process, but it’s not just a matter of fixing homes. We’re talking about billions of dollars to shelter and feed victims, build temporary housing, rebuild damaged housing, fix infrastructure problems (including roadways, bridges, trains, levees, etc.), and not to mention rebuilding all of the businesses, schools, churches, community spaces, and everything else that was brutalized by the storm.
The rebuilding process requires a multitude of steps. More importantly, rebuilding requires people, businesses, and the government to all work together, and I personally think that may be one of the biggest obstacles to overcome.
What Helps and What Hinders
I don’t think it’s a matter of people having a difficult time working together. We have seen and continue to see the love and kindness pouring out as regular citizens all over the country are going out of their ways to go and help the victims of Hurricane Harvey. Even radio stations up here in Portland, Oregon, 2,500+ miles away from the disaster, are promoting stories about Portland citizens gathering truckloads of donations to drive down to help those in need.
People help people, no doubt about it!
Many businesses are also helping, including those down in the Houston area. Jim McIngvale, more lovingly known as “Matress Mack,” (pictured above), opened his giant furniture stores to the victims of Hurricane Harvey. He’s giving victims a place to stay, a place to sleep, and food to eat. Nobody asked him to do it – he just did it, because it was the right thing to do.
Businesses are made of people, and business owners have more power to help a greater number of people. Matress Mack is only one of many business owners reaching out to help the victims.
While I would like to be optimistic, I do not have a lot of hope that our government will be as quick to aid those most in need. It’s not that they don’t want to help. Our government is made of people, and these are people who care about the safety of their constituents. Unfortunately, the lack of efficient systems and infrastructure in our government, as well as budgetary issues, will tie up the works.
Since helping people in need is often a political point of contention – oddly so, since most of the main political parties believe in helping their fellow citizens, they just disagree on the methodology – it remains to be seen if the government can stop worrying about party politics and instead do what they need to do to get the rebuilding process in full swing.
Sadder still, despite the amazing outpour of support through donations and volunteers, most of the rebuilding process will be slowed down by financial concerns and the lack of a suitable workforce.
Who Will Rebuild the Gulf Coast?
Articles on CBS news and The Washington Post, as well as articles from newspapers published within the state of Texas, including My San Antonio and The Dallas Morning News, all cite how Texas has been experiencing one of its largest labor shortages in the field of construction. Before Harvey hit, there were already major delays with building new homes, simply because contractors could not find enough skilled workers.
There are also issues related to immigration, as it is not an uncommon practice for contractors to supplement their workforce with undocumented workers. Like other industries, the construction industry also pursues the option of legally sponsoring foreigners to work in America to supplement the workforce; however, sponsoring foreign workers often involves government regulation and paying workers equal wages. Some employers would rather cut corners by paying undocumented workers under the table, and, if these workers are deported, it further depletes the workforce.
Although, as Patrick Sisson might argue, it’s not just a matter of cutting corners and paying undocumented workers under the table – it’s the fact that there simply aren’t any other construction workers available. In his article, “Construction boom exposes labor shortage threatening homebuilding,” Sisson points out that in Texas, (and across the nation, for that matter), not enough young people are entering the skilled trade fields, especially in the construction industry. He notes that there is a “greying shrinking pool” of qualified workers, which he attributes to vocational trades being ignored in the education system.
There is a major social disconnect, as Sisson points out, between young people’s perception of career success and the reality of the job market. Students believe they have to earn college degrees to get good paying jobs. There is also a massive amount of stigma associated with those who choose vocational programs over traditional degree programs, as the majority of vocational jobs are still looked at as lesser than non-vocational positions.
Sadly, high schools, and colleges for that matter, have become so wrapped up in this, “you can be anything,” mentality that they have neglected to teach students certain facts, including the following:
- College isn’t for everyone. As of 2015, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that 41% of full-time students pursuing a bachelor’s degree did not succeed.
- Not all good-paying jobs require bachelor’s degrees.
- Many vocational programs can be completed in less than two years, as compared to the 4+ years it takes to get a bachelor’s degree.
- The majority of vocational programs have built-in internships and apprenticeship programs resulting in almost immediate employment, whereas most bachelor’s degree programs only have optional internships that may or may not lead to full-time employment after graduation.
Young people also believe that skilled trade jobs in the construction industry don’t pay reasonable salaries. Again, this is due to a complete lack of the education system preparing students for the real world, as administrators tend to be more obsessed with test scores versus life skills training.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), (a government run organization that monitors the salaries of a multitude of vocations), there is clear evidence that skilled trade workers earn desirable salaries. The data below reflects the average annual salaries of various construction trade workers, as reported by the BLS in 2016:
- Brick masons = $53,440
- Carpenters = $48,340
- Carpet installers = $44,310
- Cement masons = $43,720
- Construction equipment operators = $50,560
- Dry wall and ceiling tile installers = $47,400
- Electricians = $56,650
- Plumbers = $56,030
- Rail track laying and maintenance operators = $52,810
- Structural iron and steel workers = $56,040
- Tile and marble setters = $44,770
As young people have been steered away from vocational jobs for over a decade, or as they have simply been allowed to believe that vocational jobs are not as respectable as nonvocational ones, Texas, among many states in the nation, are facing serious problems with finding a suitable workforce. In terms of rebuilding after one of the biggest natural disasters, this lack of a workforce will prove increasingly problematic in the days to come for the rebuilding process of all areas affected by Hurricane Harvey.
Idea to Increase the Workforce for the Rebuilding Process
I know that there are an unbelievable amount of problems to solve with the rebuilding process from this point on, including funding for the housing and sheltering of victims. Likewise, as explained above, there is the added problem of the lack of a suitable workforce.
Instead of bringing in workers from around the country, or bringing workers from out of the country, if any are available, why not use that money to create a modified apprenticeship program that focuses on utilizing the displaced victims as a newly trained workforce?
The following explanation will obviously be oversimplified, but as a general idea, hear me out.
We have people who have been displaced, because of the floods. Many of their places of employment have also been eliminated due to flood damage. These people face the real problems of no jobs, no possessions, nowhere to go locally, and no income. Most likely, as proven by what happened after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 , these displaced victims will simply leave the region to find employment and new places to live.
If they had the option to work, be trained in a new career, and have suitable housing, would they stay?
If we created this apprenticeship program that trained an entire new workforce, giving these people job skills they could use during and after the rebuilding process, it could motivate a large percentage of the victims to stay and reclaim their communities.
Ok, but would this idea save money?
Right now we will have to pay to house the victims, feed them, payout insurance claims, etc. We will also have to pay for construction workers to come in and rebuild. Basic facts and figures.
What if a sizable percentage of the money we plan to use to house and feed the victims could simultaneously pay for workforce?
That’s what I’m talking about by this apprenticeship program. Instead of paying to house and feed the victims AND paying strangers to come in and rebuild, we could save some of that money and invest it in the people to become the new workforce we need.
The modified apprenticeship program I’m imagining would provide on-the-job training, allowing people to learn a trade, to work, and participate in the rebuilding process. For a period of time, their salary would be the cost of their housing and the cost of basic food and toiletries.
Essentially, instead of paying the teams of contractors, we would be using that money to supplement what we need to pay to house and feed those displaced from the floods. As an added bonus, we would be working to solve part of the diminishing workforce problem in the coastal regions of Texas and Louisiana.
As I said above, this is a rough idea, but it’s an out-of-the-box idea that I think has merit.
Not only could we build and pay for a workforce at the same time, but we could also be preparing a workforce that could be used to deal with the massive infrastructure problems that contributed to the flooding itself, such as badly designed drainage systems, the levies and dams in disrepair, and other related issues.
A public works vocational apprenticeship training program such as this would give the victims reasons to stay in the area, which would avoid an economic collapse that would only further devastate the region. Likewise, those who currently feel lost after losing everything could gain a sense of pride, hope, and a real sense of community if they go through this program and participate in the rebuilding process. Furthermore, utilizing people who are already there can help offset costs, and the program would also serve to address some of the major vocational problems our country is facing with a dwindling pool of skilled trade workers.
Yes, this idea needs work – it’s still rough. We would still have to pay people to come in and train the workforce, and we would need to hire some more experienced construction workers to get things started.
That aside, we have to think of solutions that address a multitude of issues – what to do with those who’ve been displaced by the floods, how to rebuild, how to prevent this from happening again, budgetary concerns, maintaining economic stability, etc. Solutions to a problem of this magnitude will not be simple, but that does not mean the problem cannot be solved.