“The world will always need ditch diggers.”
This not uncommon response to announcements that someone plans to enter the workforce without first passing through college is often said as a jeer. Yet, in these days of rampant globalization, the words have something strangely reassuring about them.
As everyone knows, U.S. officials have watched almost helplessly for decades as factory jobs have moved overseas or been taken over by machines. Miraculously enough, though, this country has lost none of its need for ditch diggers. And it’s not just for ditch diggers, but also operator of other types of heavy equipment, dump-truck drivers and general highway workers.
Fortunately for blue-collar workers in the U.S. and other wealthy countries around the world, the construction industry does not lend itself to outsourcing. Nor are robots likely to be found putting down pavement or putting up buildings anytime soon.
Politicians should rejoice that there are still good-paying jobs out there for those who decide that, for whatever reason, a four-year university degree is not for them. Yet their policies too often suggest otherwise.
A case in point is the transportation budget released by Gov. Scott Walker on Thursday. As governor, Walker has lent his support to the idea that the young are perhaps pushed too strongly along the college route and that many could end up with far less debt and still fulfilling careers by going into the trades, manufacturing or some other industry for which apprenticeship training offers an entrée.
Yet, when it was time to put forward a transportation budget that would support some of these very same blue-collar jobs, the governor punted. Walker can protest all he wants that his administration has spent more on transportation projects than his predecessor.
The fact is that his budget would delay projects the state has already embarked on. At least one — the long-planned expansion of Interstate 94 between Milwaukee and the Illinois state line — apparently has no completion date in sight.
Now, before critics start muttering under their breath about “corporate welfare” for the road-building industry, they should remember a few points. First is that, when it comes to building roads, the government is really the only game in town. By and large, if the government doesn’t build a road, it doesn’t get built.
There is no private commissioner of road projects out there that’s going to come in and pick up the slack. It’s that simple.
Second, the interstate system is getting a little long in the tooth. Established in 1956, the system was really only supposed to last 50 years. And yet here we are in 2016 — 60 years out — with many heavily traveled stretches still needing to be rebuilt.
Finally, these projects enjoy popular support. A Marquette Law School poll from August found that 43 percent of the respondents would support raising state gas taxes or registration fees to keep projects on schedule — a pretty strong showing for a proposal that would hit the public in the pocketbook.
Rather than worrying about how voters might respond to higher gas taxes, politicians should be thinking about how every $1 spent on roads helps employ a blue-collar worker who has a family-supporting job, isn’t looking for welfare handouts and isn’t in danger of seeing his job outsourced next week. Without government spending, those jobs go away.
Can the road-building industry provide enough work to make up for all the manufacturing jobs that have been lost to overseas outsourcing? Obviously not.
But as public officials feel ever more helpless in the face of globalization, they should take comfort in knowing the world still needs ditch diggers. The real question is: Does it need politicians who are willing to let fear of losing votes get in the way of one of the few steps they can take to directly better the lots of blue-collar workers?