Administration, advocates push for job equity in
infrastructure, manufacturing spending

By Olivia Olander

04/24/2023 01:49 PM EDT

As the federal government begins to pour billions of dollars into infrastructure and manufacturing, advocates for women and other underrepresented workers are pressing to get a share, with an assist from the Biden administration. The Labor Department recently announced $5 million in funding for recruiting and retaining women in registered apprenticeships for trades such as construction and other industries where women are underrepresented, including advanced manufacturing, energy and transportation.

It’s a relatively small investment, DOL Women’s Bureau Director Wendy Chun-Hoon said. But the money is “seeding the field” for women to get in on investments in occupations where they are relatively scarce, she said.

The move is part of a multipronged effort to encourage workforce diversity after Congress passed legislation to build new roads, strengthen the high-tech industry and expand green energy.

The investment echoes recommendations from a recent report on women in manufacturing conducted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and the AFL-CIO, which found many women in these jobs saw insufficient pathways for recruitment and opportunities for advancement.

Overall, women held less than 30 percent of manufacturing jobs last year, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. They’re also less likely to be found in the more highly paid production jobs or skilled shop floor jobs, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research report said.

The administration also this month announced an $80 million initial release of funding for an approximately $200 million program intended to recruit a diverse infrastructure workforce.

Those grants show the administration is “thinking about who is on the sidelines” of the labor market, Labor Department senior adviser Manny Lamarre said in an interview. Biden also signed an executive order last week directing his agencies to consider requiring grant applicants to expand access
to child care for workers. That builds on a requirement for funds from the CHIPS and Science Act, which says applicants for more than $150 million in direct funding to construct or update semiconductor facilities must provide access to child care, for both their facility and construction workers.

“We’re using the power of the federal government to get companies to do what’s good for their workers — and I might add, good for business as well,” Biden said at a Rose Garden event Tuesday announcing the executive order. Opposition to “social” spending: A group of GOP senators has opposed the stringent funding requirements in the CHIPS Act. Some of the criteria, including the child care requirement Biden has touted, comprise a “liberal wish list,” the senators said.

Led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the lawmakers last month wrote to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo pushing back on what they called “extraneous environmental-social-governance (ESG) requirements” in the grant criteria for the CHIPS and Science Act.

A Senate Republican aide told POLITICO her side views the CHIPS requirements as overly burdensome for employers, imposing the administration’s will on a workforce that may simply not want to work in that sector. Private companies should be able to recruit workers as they see fit, she said. The more burdensome requirements also might lead companies to see less benefit in the government’s incentives, a person in the semiconductor industry added.

The big picture argument: Raimondo told The Wall Street Journal the CHIPS grant requirements are not a “social agenda” but rather a response to employers’ “struggling to hire workers.” The U.S. saw surging job growth in the first two months of the year, though the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent jobs report showed more moderation, including factories reducing payrolls for the second straight month. Recruiting a wide range of candidates was cited by a National Association of Manufacturers post this month as a top challenge in filling openings, along with communicating company culture and determining compensation.

One of the key determinants of success in rebuilding manufacturing will be having a stable workforce, said Zoe Lipman, deputy director of the Industrial Union Council at the AFL-CIO.

“We tried the cheaper route, the route of disinvestment, and that left us with huge vulnerabilities,” she said.