On National Construction Appreciation Week, InfraTalk America’s Publisher considers the transportation infrastructure industry’s relationship with its workers.

By Angie Schmitt

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It’s National Construction Appreciation Week, a week where we recognize the hard-working people who keep our roads humming and roofs over our heads. At InfraTalk America part of our mission is advocating for enhanced safety for the workers that deliver essential infrastructure to all Americans.

We wanted to take the opportunity to interview our Publisher, Gregory Nadeau, who has 15 years of experience overseeing the Federal Aid Highway Program at the state and federal level on the challenges and opportunities facing the construction workforce.

Angie Schmitt: How did you get interested in transportation infrastructure?

Gregory Nadeau: I got elected to the Maine Legislature when I was 21. My interest was very focused on economic development. I represented the second-largest city in Maine with a population of about 38,000 people. It was a city that was in transition from a classic New England mill town — shoes and textiles — which for years had been offshored.

My focus was transitioning the economy from a mill town to a more diversified economic base. As I got more involved in economic development policy it was clear to me that investment in infrastructure played a very big part.

As a member of the Maine Legislature, I think in my second term, I served on the transportation committee. It was the early stages of my education about the Federal Aid Highway Program, which on average funds about half of most states’ capital programs for highways and bridges.

When Angus King was elected governor in 1995, he asked me to come aboard as a senior policy advisor where I spent eight years serving in the office of the governor. I was responsible for infrastructure and transportation policy among other things.

AS: Eventually you were appointed Deputy Commissioner for Policy, Planning and Communications for Maine DOT and then as Deputy Administrator and eventually Administrator of the USDOT/Federal Highway Administration. Over that time, how much interaction did you have with construction workers?

When I served as Deputy Commissioner of Maine DOT I had regular interaction with contractors. State and local transportation infrastructure receives significant federal funding, a lot of policy requirements are attached to those dollars as they arrive in the state. The State DOTs are responsible for overseeing and administering those funds, as they’re deployed … but it’s their private sector partners that build the projects.

I particularly remember during the great recession – one of the first acts of the Obama Administration was to pass with Congress the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA). I was still Deputy Commissioner at Maine DOT and began my initial involvement with ARRA on the state side with my MaineDOT colleagues. We were receiving significantly more funding, probably about two-thirds of our regular year’s federal funding on top of our regular allocation. We worked with the contracting community to assess whether they had the capacity to deliver those projects over and above the regular program. The workers for those contractors were critical to executing the capital program in every state.

The contracting community is essential to the delivery of infrastructure projects. To say we couldn’t do it without them is an understatement.  The Federal Aid Highway Program is described in federal law as “federally assisted but state administered”. The partnership between the states and the federal government and the private sector is a model other federal infrastructure capital programs should emulate. It’s a terrific model.

A core mission at InfraTalk America is to support the acceleration of technological innovation in the highway and bridge infrastructure sector. And one key focus area is work zone safety. Do you think we’re doing a good enough job protecting the workforce?

The ability for the contractor industry to attract and retain workers is critical to delivering the Federal Aid Highway Program nationally. It also means that both the owner agencies — the state DOTs — and the contractors themselves place a high value on protecting workers in the field.

It’s also the reality that a high percentage of the [Federal Aid Highway] program, in excess of 90% of the projects, are delivered on a low-bid basis. In the process of putting bid packages together, in the process of contractors bidding on those bid packages, the goal of the contractor in a low bid environment is to sharpen the pencil and deliver the lowest bid possible to try to win the bid.

We are excited about championing Positive Work Zone Protection (PWZP) policies and grateful to the campaign’s sponsor, Lindsay Corporation, for their help and support.

Several state DOT’s have been leading these efforts including Indiana, California and Michigan using a number of strategies. One issue area that I think is worthy of exploring is how we might eliminate from the bidding process, the cost associated with improved and advanced positive work zone protection, which is simply a greater frequency of using hardened barriers that separate vehicles from workers. If the cost of PWZP is allocated by the owner, then the contractor only needs to demonstrate how that will meet that specification. It depends on the nature of the project, the speed of the traffic, the design of the work zone. PWZP is not always necessary, but its application ought not be the result of achieving the lowest bid. How do we encourage and incentivize the best and most effective solution?

How does all this play into recruitment, which is one of the goals of Construction Appreciation Week, boosting the pipeline of qualified individuals entering the field?

It’s a significant problem, public and private sectors are both struggling with attracting and retaining workers. It’s a very interesting and challenging time. We’re suffering through what is effectively COVID inflation and also COVID challenges related to the workforce. The construction industry continued working in most states and in the case of the highway and bridge sectors, utilized the time with little to no traffic to accelerate projects.

We’ve seen extraordinary heat in many parts of the country in recent years, for construction workers, it’s particularly challenging. We need to celebrate and thank them for their contributions to sustaining and helping grow the economy – our thanks for their efforts.

Many programs have been instituted over the years to try to recruit and retain individuals for what are good paying jobs. The construction industry is a pathway for someone who might be working at a low-wage job – to get training, to develop skills and to get a job that will grow their standard of living.  

National Construction Appreciation Week is a program of I Build America, an initiative that seeks to build industry pride and recruit talent to the construction industry.