A year after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, progress is being made in the massive reconstruction effort. On critical infrastructure and economic projects, the pace seems to be limited only by the number of skilled people available to do the work. That refrain is being echoed around the U.S. on other projects, but nowhere else are the ramifications more important—health, safety and economic recovery for an entire region.

That presents an opportunity for the nation and industry that appears only about once in a generation—the mobilization of a citizen army to build rather than destroy. It will take a joint operation of the public and private sectors to accomplish the mission. Some portions now are in the works, but others still need to be resolved.

One is worker housing. People are streaming into the region looking for construction opportunities but they first have to find a place to live. At the moment, there is no concerted regional plan addressing this need—temporary or permanent. Each contractor or project owner has to fashion its own solution to obtain the workers needed. The bigger the project, the more resources available and the greater the chance of attracting skilled labor. Homeowners looking for workers for repairs unfortunately have virtually no leverage and few prospects.

This presents a prime opportunity for government to act on a socio-economic level by supporting a large-scale coordinated housing program that will be a catalyst for regional recovery. This is not a handout, but an investment. Costs would be amortized by rent payments from worker tenants. Federal and state government help is needed because of the ability to cut across multiple, competing jurisdictions. If the nation can organize an army for destruction, it surely can help mobilize one for construction.

Aside from those logistics, the construction industry and private sector can take care of everything else. Skilled workers, both union and nonunion, can be put to work right away. For the unskilled, this is an opportunity of a lifetime to obtain construction training and skills that will build a career rather than just land a job.

One broad industry initiative led by The Business Roundtable aims to train 20,000 new construction workers by 2009. Roundtable firms are contributing $5 million. It’s nice to see the Roundtable once again interested in construction, but we think that the 160 member CEOs of companies with $4.5 trillion in annual revenue are being stingy. Many will reap benefits. Unions also are on the move, mobilizing talent, money, training and organizing in the South.

Money is flowing for major projects and both union and nonunion labor resources will be required. All that is needed is a key to resolve the housing nightmare.