Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Both Support Surge in Infrastructure Work

But where will the workers come from?

By Steve Bates Oct 18, 2016
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Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump don't agree on much, but both presidential candidates support a significant boost in government spending to upgrade roads, bridges, ports, airports and other infrastructure. Both campaigns tout their infrastructure plans as keystones of their efforts to create jobs, yet it's not clear where the millions of workers needed to fill new construction jobs would come from.

There's little disagreement that U.S. infrastructure is in bad shape. Maintenance and new construction projects have been deferred because of funding problems. It's not just potholes and overpasses; the water quality crisis in Flint, Mich., is directly related to insufficient funding of infrastructure.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump
U.S. Presidential Election Coverage

For more information about where the candidates stand on workplace issues, check out the SHRM resources provided below:

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· Clinton policies · Trump policies

"It's very easy for the public to take infrastructure for granted," said Casey Dinges, senior managing director of the American Society of Civil Engineers. "Every 45 minutes somebody dies because of poor roads being a factor in their accident."

Infrastructure might not be as exciting as leaked sex-talk videos and embarrassing e-mails, but the campaigns have elevated the issue. In his first debate with Clinton, Trump brought up his plan, stating that in terms of infrastructure, the U.S. is "a Third World country." In the vice presidential debate, Democrat Tim Kaine mentioned the Clinton infrastructure proposal among economic initiatives that would boost the economy and jobs.

"We're really hopeful that, no matter who wins, some type of infrastructure plan will be put forth and taken up within the first 100 days," said Kerry E. O'Hare, vice president and director of policy at Building America's Future, a bipartisan advocacy group.

Whoever wins the presidency could have a tough time making the case for the spending necessary to jump-start their plan. The federal budget will be tight, with entitlement spending taking up a large portion and deficits projected to remain high. The political will to raise taxes will depend in part upon the results of the November 2016 elections.

Said Brian Turmail, a spokesman for Associated General Contractors of America: "Both parties tend to support infrastructure investment. Both parties historically have not wanted to raise revenues."

O'Hare points to several infrastructure funding options, including:

  • An increase in the federal gas tax.
  • More user fees and tolls.
  • Public-private partnerships.
  • An infrastructure bank.

"We have always said that everything's on the table," he said.

Clinton's approach, outlined on her website, is a $275 billion, five-year plan that focuses on public transit and universal internet access as well as on fixing and expanding transportation infrastructure, investing in clean water, and promoting clean energy. She proposes to pay for the program through "business tax reform," a national infrastructure bank that would leverage $25 billion in federal funds to attract private investments, and a Build American Bonds program.

Trump's campaign did not respond to a request for information about its plan. However, on his website, Trump states: "We will build the next generation of roads, bridges, railways, tunnels, sea ports and airports that our country deserves…. We will put new American metal into the spine of this nation." In interviews, he has suggested that he would at least double Clinton's plan, to as much as $1 trillion. He has mentioned "infrastructure bonds" and an infrastructure fund.

 Who Will Fill the Jobs?

Supporters of a surge in infrastructure spending point out that it would have a positive impact on the economy. At least in part, they say, it would pay for itself over time. Part of the benefit would be in jobs. Part would be attributable to enhanced mobility, improved productivity and an increase in business for the restaurants and other firms that would be patronized by construction workers.

However, Michael Manville, an assistant professor of urban planning at the University of California Los Angeles, said that creating jobs is not a cure for the economy. "It's a cost," he stated.

It's not clear how many jobs—somewhere between 3 million and 13 million—and which types would be created by an infrastructure surge. Some would be short-term. Some would require specific skills. "It will be a mixture of jobs," O'Hare said. Laborers, suppliers, architects and other skilled tradeworkers will be needed.

It's also unknown whether enough people would answer the call to fill the new jobs. While many Americans have dropped out of the workforce in recent years, the official unemployment rate has decreased substantially. There are concerns about a labor shortage in the construction industry. Yet some industry representatives have adopted the mantra: "Build it, and they will come."

"Our sense is that there is a lot more slack in the labor market for heavy construction," said Turmail. The creation of good-paying jobs "is an incredibly powerful recruiting tool," he said. "It will bring people off the sidelines."

Turmail said that the country needs more career education at the high school level. That might be stimulated by a major federal commitment to infrastructure spending. "It sends a clear signal what careers to follow." Turmail added that construction jobs will become more palatable when young people hear the calling of "Help us rebuild this country."

Manville said that if the U.S. is close to what labor economists call "full employment," finding enough workers for a massive infrastructure surge "probably isn't going to happen. What would that person have been doing if they hadn't been fixing that bridge?"

The federal government is only one piece of the U.S. infrastructure puzzle. State governments, regional governments, local governments and the private sector also have roles and responsibilities.

"It's not like the feds are going to sweep in and fix everything," said Dinges. "State and local governments have to do more, too." Yet state and local government budgets are also pinched. And the responsibility for many infrastructure projects has trickled down to them from the federal government in recent years. "A number of states are taking action because they have to. They're taking tough votes on raising revenues," said Dinges.

The private sector is a key player. Dinges noted that telecommunication and railroad construction and maintenance are largely in the hands of the business community.

For more SHRM coverage of Donald Trump's ideas for change in the workplace and Hillary Clinton's workplace policies, please visit our 2016 U.S. Presidential Election Coverage page.

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