U.S. Labor Secretary Walsh talks tight market, touts federal investments in Indiana tour
U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh touted federal infrastructure and job training investments during a visit to Indianapolis and northern Indiana Wednesday.
The secretary’s first stop, the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (NICTD), received more $150 million in federal fiscal year 2022 appropriations for projects that aim to boost rail service.
Zachary Trunk works in the district’s Michigan City maintenance shop and is chairman and president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) union, local 2355.
The new projects won’t immediately create a need for more workers here, Trunk said, but eventually “it’s going to equal more trains running, it's going to equal more maintenance and more work for us to maintain these trains.”
“We definitely need more guys in the long term,” Trunk said. “We have a lot of older guys that are looking to retire too. So you got to keep that in mind, plus the expansion, plus adding more cars to our fleet as well.”
Part of the federal money going to the NICTD is being used to add about 17 miles of secondary track along the existing South Shore Line, cutting travel times between Gary and Michigan City by about a third.
The project’s initial projected cost was about $491 million. It has received just about that amount from federal, state and local funding sources since January 2021. Part of the money came from the Federal 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill.
“So voting and supporting the infrastructure bill, it's billions of dollars of investment, 8 billion in Indiana. So our roads, our bridges, our waterways, but this project is an implication that it creates jobs,” said U.S. Rep. Frank J. Mrvan (D-Highland), who joined the secretary for this tour.
This shop has struggled with hiring and retention over the last two years, like many others across this and other industries, South Shore Line President Mike Noland explained to Secretary Walsh during his visit to the Michigan City site.
Indiana – like the rest of the nation – is experiencing a tight labor market. Preliminary job data estimates for July and August suggest there are about four job seekers for every 10 openings. And while only about 63 percent of the state’s working-age population is participating in the labor market, the total number of employed people in the last two months of data has broken records.
“The workers are there,” Walsh said. “We just got to show them that these industries are there for them. That they can actually do well.”
He pointed to job training and apprenticeships as potential salves for employers’ hiring issues.
We have a real opportunity to continue to build a workforce of the future that might look a little bit like the industrial revolution in this country,” Walsh said. “We have to make sure that we catch young people that are coming out of high school that might not want to go into college and let them know there's really pathways into careers, such as the South Shore Line, working in the building trades, working manufacturing.”
READ MORE: Indiana's unemployment rate increases slightly in August, but labor market remains tight
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Walsh also visited Recycleforce Wednesday afternoon. The Indianapolis nonprofit provides job training to formerly incarcerated people and recycles electronics.
In 2021, Indiana used $75 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to create Accelerate Indiana, a program helping students pay tuition costs for job training programs in “high-wage, high-demand” fields like advanced manufacturing and construction.
Smaller amounts of ARPA dollars have also been granted directly by the federal government to a nurse training program in Goshen and engineering and manufacturing-related certification programs in Fort Wayne.
Zachary Trunk, NICTD employee and IBEW local union president, said wages are the primary concern he and other district workers have, especially as workers with other nationally-affiliated unions could get big raises after recent negotiations nearly averted a strike, at least temporarily.
His union isn’t part of those negotiations, he said, though he and his fellow employees would be affected by a strike indirectly. He hopes they can use those nationally-won wages when negotiating their local’s new contract with the district in 2024.
“Everyone should be unionized because that's how you fight for your rights as a worker,” Trunk said.
Though, with wages around $30 an hour, Line President Mike Noland said the district is a “high paying employer” for the county.
During his tour of the district’s facility, Secretary Walsh applauded the wage increases seen nationwide over the last year.
“We got to help increase wages for American workers all across the board. And we also got to bring the inflationary pressures down,” Walsh said. “In the last year, the president has given us as a cabinet a mandate to go out there and alleviate the supply chain burdens.”
Walsh and Rep. Mrvan were both union workers in the past and emphasized the important role they see unions play.
“The union opportunity I had growing up in the building trades was a pathway to the middle class and not enough people get that opportunity pathway,” Walsh said. “Right here in this facility … where we're standing right now, you know, these workers are working towards a pension, these workers are getting a good wage, these workers have health care, it really is about creating those opportunities for workers in America.”
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