THE BLOG

Jobs for Blue Collar Men

05/22/2014 04:02 pm ET | Updated Jul 22, 2014

The "Great Recession" has been called a "mancession" because manufacturing and construction, two quintessential men's industries, suffered 75 percent of the losses. Male employment even today is 2 million below its level in 2007 when the Great Recession began.

This is hugely important because well-paying jobs are central to the self-esteem of blue collar men and to their role in families and the larger society. Not being able to earn decent wages amounts to economic castration for many of them, and women sense it and are being hurt by it too. The question is how to create jobs that rebuild the self-esteem of these men.

One approach is training for newer kinds of work. Community colleges, apprenticeships, more on-the-job training, and other skill-enhancing programs deserve greater support. Not all blue collar men, however, can benefit from such training so there also need to be more direct solutions.

Large scale infrastructure modernization is something the country desperately needs and that would provide many blue collar jobs quickly. Intelligent people in both parties know this. The Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, other business groups, labor unions, and the Obama administration support a big infrastructure program but Tea Party Republicans in Congress are sticking their fingers in the eyes of blue collar men by blocking it.

97.4 percent of America's construction employees are blue collar men who deserve much better from Tea Party Republicans who claim that they represent blue collar values. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gives American infrastructure a woeful D+ on its 2013 Report Card. It says that the U.S. needs to spend an additional $200 billion a year between now and 2020 to bring that grade up to a B. An infrastructure program to do this or to bring it up to an A --- my preference --- would employ hundreds of thousands of blue collar men.

Blue collar men would be the carpenters, cement masons, pipe layers, electricians, operating engineers, and construction laborers employed modernizing roads, bridges, airports, the Internet, the electric grid, sewer systems, schools, parks, seaports, water infrastructure, and other facilities that are essential to America's future well-being. Infrastructure modernization also would create tens of thousands of additional blue collar jobs at American plants producing cement, steel, and equipment that are now operating at far below full capacity. Jobs in construction and other blue collar industries also would help retailers like WalMart who are being hurt because blue collar families are their customers.

American leaders including George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and Abraham Lincoln supported infrastructure modernization in their day when it was called "internal improvements." President "Ike" Eisenhower's favorite domestic program was the Defense Highway Act of 1956 that built America's interstate system. It created hundreds of thousands of jobs, benefitted businesses in every region and was a major engine of economic growth across the country for decades. Developing the flow of funds (the Highway Trust Fund) based on the federal gasoline tax to pay the federal share of this long-term program involved many compromises, but it did the job until recently when funds began to fall short.

Both parties should make developing financing mechanisms for a multi-year infrastructure program their number one priority. Infrastructure Bank legislation, for example, had bipartisan support until the 2012 election approached, and the idea has been revived by Senators Mark Warner (D) and Roy Blunt (R). Another financing proposal that has bipartisan support would allow companies to repatriate overseas profits tax-free if they invest them in infrastructure.

A strong reason to do infrastructure now is that interest rates are very low so financing is cheap and trillions of private money is on the sidelines that could be borrowed inexpensively to finance infrastructure expansion. What Congress needs to do is find functional equivalents of the gasoline tax to pay off these investments over 30 or even 50 years.

Blue collar men and their families ought to be angry as hell at the Tea Party faction in Congress that is responsible for denying them the chance to rebuild the country. Those who care about blue collar men should be making these Tea Party legislators feel the political heat for what they are doing to these men and the American social fabric that blue collar men help hold together.