For project developers and construction contractors across Wyoming, opportunity is knocking.
At the federal level, the bi-partisan Infrastructure and Jobs Act, Inflation Reduction Act and Chips and Science Act are unleashing billions of dollars to support Wyoming energy, infrastructure, and advanced manufacturing.
Indeed, these investments are a big reason why the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is projecting that between now and 2030 about 60% of new jobs in our nation’s economy won’t require a college degree. Many of them, in the skilled construction sector, will build and maintain these federally funded projects.
In short, the opportunities ahead cry out for investments that promote quality jobs and expanded career pathways into the skilled trades.
Yet for generations, Americans have told our kids that college — and the enormous student debt load that comes with it — was the preferred pathway to a middle-class life. State legislatures and courts alike mounted decades of attacks on workers’ rights, labor standards and the institutions that have long replenished our supply of skilled trade workers.
Wyoming has not been immune to these efforts — or their effects.
It is one of roughly two dozen states that have passed laws to weaken collective bargaining institutions. These so-called “right to work” laws are consistently linked to inferior job quality, safety and workforce development outcomes.
This summer, a new state law that restricts the use of pre-hire labor agreements on publicly funded construction projects went into effect — even though research finds these types of agreements lead to better economic and workforce outcomes.
The fact is that partnerships between employers and labor should not be perceived as a threat to the generational energy and broadband investments coming to Wyoming. They might just be key to their success.
As surveys by Associated General Contractors of America point out, partnerships with skilled trade unions ultimately decrease the risk of labor shortages that can throw these projects off track — in no small part because they institutionalize investments in apprenticeship training that attach workers to construction careers, and deliver debt-free outcomes for workers that rival other occupations requiring college degrees.
To be clear, investments in Wyoming’s skilled trade workforce need not increase project costs. In fact, research has shown that while they result in consistently higher job quality, those costs are generally offset by superior safety and workforce productivity gains on the jobsite, and reduced reliance on government welfare programs like Medicaid and food stamps. Recent research has even concluded these gains often make union projects cheaper than the alternative.
Equally important, research shows that they typically translate to more hiring of individuals from the local community. This is especially important in emerging energy sectors, which have historically struggled to compete for workers against legacy industries such as fossil fuel and relied on lower-wage workers from out of state.
Happily, some Wyoming utilities are already choosing a different path by offering retraining opportunities to local fossil fuel workers, for placement on new energy technology projects. We are proud to work with them, committed to working with every Wyoming stakeholder — from chambers of commerce to state officials, utilities, developers and contractors — to offer more of the skilled-trade-workforce and middle-class career pathways that Wyoming’s energy transition demands.
We all want our vital transportation, communications, water, energy and other critical infrastructure to be built safely, and by competent local professionals. And we all want workers to be able to access the training they need to build careers in these emerging industries. Partnerships with skilled trade unions deliver precisely this kind of value.
Ultimately, to realize the full potential of the energy and infrastructure opportunities coming to Wyoming, every link in the chain must be prepared to do its part. Families need to expose their children to in-demand, debt-free alternatives to college, such as the skilled trades. Project owners must be willing to consider workforce partnerships that can deliver quality jobs and reliable craftsmanship. And policymakers must recognize that such partnerships are not only a best-in-class path for getting the work done on time and on budget, but they are also a mechanism to deliver maximum value for taxpayers and our economy.