As the Trump administration rolls out its long-awaited infrastructure plan, the reality of the skilled worker shortage will come into clear view. Skilled labor plays an important role in implementing Trump’s $1 trillion plan to modernize the nation’s transportation infrastructure, regardless of whether the projects are funded publicly or privately.
Analysts look to the issue of drug abuse in explaining this problem. National survey data shows that 16.5 percent of construction workers admit to heavy alcohol abuse within the last month, about 12 percent to illicit drug use in the same period, and over 14 percent to illicit drug use during the past year. Workers in the related sectors of mining and manufacturing also exhibit much higher than average incidence of drug and alcohol abuse.
If the Trump administration is going to be successful in stimulating these sectors, it will need to rekindle efforts to reverse the growing tsunami of damaging drug use, which is reaching a deadly crescendo as use of powerful new drugs such as Fentanyl spreads to blue-collar workers.
Workplace safety and health are of paramount importance involving operating heavy machinery that control heavy equipment in fast-paced production environments. Driving trucks, drilling for oil and gas, or building new structures entail serious risks as well.
Recent reporting confirms a worrisome upward trend in drug use. According to the most recent National Survey of Drug Use and Health, up to 48 million Americans admit to having used illicit drugs in the past year. 36 million reveal they used marijuana, 40 percent describing themselves as “heavy users.” Marijuana use has grown by 44 percent since 2008, as state after state have legalized its usage while public officials and elites has fostered a culture of tolerance.
Data from the largest private drug testing firm, Quest Diagnostics, reveals more troublesome trends: heroin use is up 84 percent since 2011 and cocaine up 55 percent since 2007. More potent, and deadly, forms of marijuana and heroin are increasingly available.
Opioid overdose deaths are at an all time high, an issue that Trump made crucial during his 2016 campaign, often expressing the need for stricter drug laws including his border wall proposal during his large rallies and speeches.
The U.S. labor participation rate has declined by about four percent in the last two decades. Surveys show a greater tendency for low-income and non-college-educated workers to abuse illegal drugs.
Illegal drug use is a major contributing factor to the skills shortages affecting the industrial sector. Job applicants struggle to pass or simply avoid jobs requiring screening. The social breakdown linked with chronic drug use discourages them from acquiring needed skills, work habits, and the motivation to thrive in good paying but increasingly demanding industrial, and construction jobs.
Estimates by the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, which are based on analysis of emergency room visits, suggest that 35-40 percent of accidents are associated with illicit drug use. Studies have estimated that marijuana users have 55 percent more workplace accidents than non-users.
There is without doubt a culture of despair among industrial workers. Indifference on the part of political and educational institutions has also played a large role.
But ignoring the devastating effects of drug abuse is exacerbating the problem.
President Donald Trump has set out to reverse the political economy of the construction and overall industrial sectors and the culture of indifference or outright hostility to their growth.
As the new federal budget takes shape, devoting attention and resources to the drug problem is also needed to reverse the cycle of personal and social decline which contributes to the shortages of labor, holding back stronger economic growth.