Keelan: Scores of bulldozers but no operators

By Don Keelan

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.

Don Keelan

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 non-government organizations were publishing plans to weatherize 120,000 homes in ten 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 ARPA 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 eight-foot 2×4 spruce stud cost approximately $5.72 in August of 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:

  1. Re-start many of the closed lumber mills and assist those in the tree harvesting business.
  2. Mandate that all new projects, big or small, have an approval cycle that lasts no longer than 60 days.
  3. Have our tech-schools go to a six-day-a-week schedule twelve hours per day.
  4. Provide re-training opportunities in the construction trades to the thousands of Vermonters who are incarcerated or on probation/parole.
  5. 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.

Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington, Vermont.

Image courtesy of Public domain
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5 thoughts on “Keelan: Scores of bulldozers but no operators

  1. By the time the Vermont legislature is finished deciding how to spend the money, there won’t be enough left to spend. Between that and all of the businesses that have been driver out of the state or out of business there won’t be anyone left to do the work.

  2. When the government ‘takes control’ all is lost. Your credible plan sounds a great deal like Trump’s plan and has great value. We need ‘builders’ who can build something with their hands and talent. The government now plans to offer ‘free’ junior college to everyone. Just stupid!

  3. This boondoggle spending scheme sounds like it will surpass bigley the last “shovel

    ready jobs program” that Joke Xiden under his buddy obama wasted a mere trillion

    dollars of tax payer monies on. After that “infrastructure” program failure you’d think people would be saying a very loud NO… where’s the fake news propaganda units
    advising us of the last utter failure and holding little red lying hood (Psaki) to account…

  4. Mr. Keelan,

    Thank you for this thoughtful commentary.

    I seem to recall a plywood making facility in Rutland burned down not that long ago and was never replaced. Might be worth some help getting something like this going which could use the large amount of lower grade wood we need thinned, as well as restarting more lumber mills.

  5. “The American Rescue Plan Act, if approved by Congress, contains a provision to create over 500,000 charging stations countrywide” – Did the taxpayers pay for our nationwide gas stations or did the corporations/entrepreneurs who were going to profit from them build them at their own expense? Charging stations could be a profitable customer draw for establishments where the customer expects to spend some time – like shopping malls, bowling alleys, cinemas, laundromats, bars and restaurants. And, especially, the DMV. You’ll be there for a few hours. That will also promote price/service competition – benefitting the consumer.

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