Don Keelan: Scores of bulldozers, but where are the operators?

This commentary is by Don Keelan, a retired certified public accountant and a resident of Arlington.

Vermont is on the doorstep of taking in hundreds of millions of federal dollars. 

The money will fund dozens of infrastructure projects: roads, bridges, dams, sewers, water treatment, broadband, government buildings, schools and child care centers. 

Funding will continue, providing dollars to cover the cost of home weatherization and to develop hundreds of electric vehicle charging stations throughout Vermont. The underlying federal legislation, the American Rescue Plan Act, if approved by Congress, contains a provision to create over 500,000 charging stations countrywide. 

Even before the discussion/debate over the Biden administration’s proposed infrastructure legislation, Vermont officials and nongovernment organizations were publishing plans to weatherize 120,000 homes in 10 years along with increasing/replacing the state’s housing stock by 10,000 homes over a 10-year span. 

This does not include the hundreds of housing units the administration plans to build to accommodate the homeless, many of whom reside in motel/hotel establishments. 

When such numbers are presented, does anyone ask if such ideas/goals are practical in this state? The answer is no. They are not, and below are the reasons why. 

The most compelling reason is that Vermont does not have the building trade labor force to meet today’s demand for new construction, home repairs, and residential and commercial remodeling. If the American Rescue Plan comes to fruition, many of the projects Vermont needs to accomplish will, at best, be wishful thinking. The labor force is not here.

The construction and manufacturing labor markets are so tight that companies are offering signing bonuses to qualified applicants. It almost appears that this is necessary to get a plumber or electrician to come to the house. 

Another factor is the cost of housing today. Note what was recently written in Seven Days: “‘The materials price increases have been so great (and) the land costs are so high, that you can’t justify the increased cost of building a small home,’ said Denis Bourbeau, Vermont Association of Builders and Home Remodelers president, and then added, ‘To build a 1,200-square-foot house, I’d be out $365,000.” 

The state has “missed the boat” when it comes to building. Lumber prices today are out of control. An 8-foot-long 2×4 spruce stud cost approximately $5.72 in August 2019. Today, the same piece of lumber (if you can get it) costs $11.45. There is chaos in the appliance market as well. A new home would have to be appliance-free; they are just not available. 

We know we have the projects to do. Even if the funding was in place (must be by a certain date) and we had the labor force (which we don’t), local and state approvals for the projects are still missing. In Vermont, this is the unknown factor. Will a project will move forward or not? 

Only at one’s peril would one discount how critical approvals are for any building project. For example, the recent withdrawal of the 90-unit Hilton Hotel project along with a 300-car garage in Montpelier can be traced to the time the project spent in the approval process — three years. The applicant said enough and withdrew. 

Leaders within the state may well voice that we need housing, but do any of the 250 towns really want to support more housing in their towns? 

Vermont can do much to bring about change, and a beginning would need to address the following:

  • Re-start many of the closed lumber mills and assist those in the tree harvesting business. 
  • Mandate that all new projects, big or small, have an approval cycle that lasts no longer than 60 days. 
  • Have our tech schools go to a six-day-a-week schedule 12 hours per day. 
  • Provide retraining opportunities in the construction trades to the thousands of Vermonters who are incarcerated or on probation/parole.
  • Provide summer camps to teenagers where they will learn how to operate construction equipment and the other skills needed in the building trades. 

It is a disappointing scene for a building contractor to see excavators, bulldozers and front-end loaders sit idle because there are no operators to be found.


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