How many jobs? Roads, bridges and the stimulus

We really don’t know how many jobs the stimulus is creating or saving. For all the national and state accountability sites, finding good data continues to be a challenge and trying to get a solid answer on even the most basic questions is a chore.

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This came back to me again recently when trying to track down how many jobs have been created or saved in roads and transportation stimulus spending in Minnesota.

I checked in with the Minnesota Department of Transportation on Friday after seeing a jobs number on its site that just couldn’t be right – 483 full time equivalent jobs.

It wasn’t. A MnDOT spokesman said that represented only jobs from the last quarter of 2009 and that the total FTE was about 1,500. That made sense and I was going to post the 1,500 number on Friday but then the spokesman called back and said they were still working on a calculation and I shouldn’t use the 1,500.

It was Good Friday and many people were out of the office, so I’m not faulting anyone. MnDOT said they would try to get a number to me today. I’ll update this post when they do.

The reality, though, is the no matter the number, the expectations created when the federal stimulus passed in February 2009 of massive job creation haven’t come to pass.

We’ve been skeptical for months about job counts. But I really did think the most accurate numbers would come from counting road and construction projects.

That hasn’t been the case. Here’s a thumbnail look at how the numbers have changed.

— Back in February 2009, just after the stimulus passed, state leaders were using Federal Highway Administration estimates that the first 60 projects in Greater Minnesota transportation alone would create approximately 5,000 jobs.

— By August 2009, MPR’s Mark Zdechlik was reporting that officials were backtracking on how many road construction jobs the stimulus would create.

— Weeks later, though, MnDOT was still telling the Legislature that 3,448 “direct on-the-project state and local jobs” had been created via stimulus funded road projects.

— By the fall, the numbers had been revised to 1,038.67 full time equivalent jobs created or saved.

Tim Worke, director of the transportation and highway division for the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota, the trade group for the state’s road and bridge construction companies, says he had the same struggle “estimating job numbers with any accuracy or confidence” when he did research for a presentation in February.

“The problem is the counting methodology and what constitutes a ‘job,'” he said. Different federal offices used different approaches and reporting techniques so different numbers were generated.

“The reality is that the construction industry is in a depression and not a recession,” he added. “The (stimulus) projects allowed some firms to hang on through a very difficult time and the opportunity allowed them to retain workers who otherwise would have been laid off or not called back to work.”

Worke pointed to recent testimony before Congress from a Minnesotan and AGC member who talked about how vital the stimulus money was to keeping her job.

So how should we view the stimulus when it comes to jobs and road construction?

It’s pretty clear the estimates of massive job creation early on were way off. So how do we judge, ultimately, if the spending was worth it?

“The failure of the (stimulus) program in the highway sector was that it was over sold publicly as a huge job opportunity program for folks that were out of work,” Worke said.

“The reality has played out more as a job retention program and not a job creation program.”

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