Local engineering and construction firms are gearing up for big business after President Joe Biden signed the $1 trillion infrastructure bill into law this week. The plan will send billions to state and local governments across the country for long-needed upgrades. 17 billion of those dollars are headed to Illinois adding to the $45 billion the state is already spending on infrastructure.
Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Jaime di Paulo says all of Illinois’ businesses, but especially the smaller enterprises Latinos tend to own, need to button up their bonding and certifications before they can take on the business.
“The money is coming soon and the development’s going to happen sooner. So I just hope everybody reaches out to organizations like ours that have the infrastructure and the programs to make sure the particular companies are properly certified and properly bonded. So that’s the key,” said di Paulo. “So if you have a construction firm, if you’re going to access these particular dollars, you need to start thinking certification.”
The labor shortage that has cramped industries across the country has not spared the trades – but Dana Toscano-Harder of the consulting firm Indep Chicago says the workers are out there, companies just need to figure out how to reach them.
“I do think that there are enough workers available, but I think there needs to be some drastic improvements of means of access to those workers,” Toscano-Harder said. “I’ve worked in a lot of different programs where diverse and disenfranchised individuals have qualified for programs to work in a labor capacity and people aren’t often comfortable saying I can’t afford work boots, I don’t have a ride to the job site, I don’t understand how to read plans and specifications. A lot of people aren’t comfortable leaving maybe a lower-paying job where they know they’re going to get those 40 hours a week to make $45 an hour for three months because they don’t see the long-term opportunity.”
But before the tradespeople can get to work, engineers must be in place to create the plans.
Lourdes Gonzalez is senior vice president with the professional service firm Primera Engineers. Gonzalez says there is plenty of unrealized opportunity for Latinos with an engineering bent to start a lucrative career, but firms must take the long view by creating a pipeline.
“Having qualified engineers is always the challenge and the challenge is becoming more difficult every day. That’s why we have started and have for many years started in the middle school level to get kids, Latino kids in particular, involved and learning about STEM careers and seeing role models that look like them so that they can understand that is a path for them, that they can be an engineer, that there are other people that look like them that have these great jobs,” said Gonzalez. “We have to continue to do that with Latinos in particular because they are still a very small percentage of the overall engineering and architecture profession, and we need to change that. So planting the seed pretty early on.”