Bridge Construction

‘A once-in-a-generation window to invest in infrastructure and expand economic opportunity’

Brookings: State and local governments can drive workforce development to attract, train, and retain a more inclusive infrastructure workforce

Late last month, the Biden Administration announced the release of nearly $1.2 billion in federal grants for nine transportation infrastructure projects around the country. According to the announcement, the “projects will create good-paying jobs, grow the economy, strengthen supply chains, improve mobility for residents, and make our transportation systems safer for all users.”

The funding comes from the $550 billion, bi-partisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which was signed into law in November 2021. The projects are in both rural and urban areas of the country and include funding to:

  • repair the Brent Spence Bridge – and build a new bridge alongside the existing one – over the Ohio River between Cincinnati, Ohio and Covington, Kentucky. The bridge is described as a “critical freight corridor which sees over $400 billion in freight movement annually.”
  • widen the I-10 Freight Corridor near Diamondhead, Mississippi, from four to six lanes, increasing access to locations across the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and major southern cities, including New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Houston and Mobile. 
  • replace the deteriorating Alligator River Bridge, a critical hurricane evacuation route in Dare and Tyrell counties in North Carolina.
A Once-in-a-Generation Inclusive Job Creation Opportunity

Investing in rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure stimulates economic growth, creates jobs, and the jobs generated by these and other IIJA-funded projects will be both direct and indirect, according to analysis from labor and economic researchers.

They expect to see more jobs in construction, engineering, plumbing, electrical work, IT, and green energy. Indirectly, there could be more jobs created as the result of increased demand for building materials, such as steel, and in heavy equipment manufacturing.

A new report from Brookings Metro calls the IIJA a “once-in-a-generation window to invest in infrastructure and expand economic opportunity” while building a stronger, more inclusive workforce. Right now, the report argues, the field doesn’t have a strong track record of inclusion and diversity, but that could change if state and local leaders act strategically.

“They can harness IIJA funding to make both short- and long-term investments in the next generation of infrastructure talent. But if leaders and employers continue to treat recruitment, hiring, and training practices as an afterthought, the country will likely miss out on this legislation’s transformative potential to drive inclusive growth, make a just climate transition, and spur innovation and global competitiveness,” to quote the report.

Brookings says there are two fundamental questions that state and local leaders eligible for the funding need to answer:

  • Where will they find all the workers needed to construct, operate, and maintain these systems, both now and in years to come?  
  • How can leaders navigate all this federal funding to hire, train, and retain more and different types of workers, rather than relying on traditional strategies that have fallen short? 

Finding answers to these questions is all the more urgent given that many of the IIJA projects will soon need workers and many current workers are starting to retire.

Investing in Current and Future Workers

One out of every 10 workers in the country – 17 million – already work in infrastructure jobs and another 1.5 million are being created annually already. IIJA is expected to add millions more. However, the sector is still expected to lose 1.7 million workers over the next decade as current workers age out of the workforce.

“Whether building roads, repairing pipes, or upgrading power plants, investments in the country’s transportation, water, energy, and broadband systems not only supports more economic output, but also drives the need for more workers,” says Brookings Metro fellow Joseph Kane, a co-author of the report calling on state and local governments to act now to build a pipeline of new talent. He’s also the author of the Brookings report Seizing the U.S. Infrastructure Opportunity.

“Yes, there is new job creation potential here (in the IIJA), but we can’t just focus on the new and projected possibilities,” Kane tells my colleague, contributing writer Victoria Lim. “We have to emphasize all the workers heading for the exits. It’s happening right now.”

He puts it this way in his report. “(The) hiring, training, and retention gaps remain vast across this workforce, as fewer workers are entering these careers and more workers are retiring and leaving these jobs than ever before.”

Joe Kane, fellow, Brookings Metro (Photo: Brookings)

Kane says there needs to be more encouragement of younger people to enter the infrastructure industry.

Early exposure to careers and skills in school – such as shop class in high school, or career days in middle schools – is a start. Offering internships and mentorships when students are older, or project demonstrations for the community, can increase visibility into opportunities.

Once hired, on-the-job training can be just as valuable as a college degree. Creating pathways for advancement can help with retention, moving people from entry level into management or growth areas.

At the same time, says Kane, too few of these new job opportunities are being filled by women and people of color.

Encouraging a New, Broader Talent Pool

Kane’s research shows that the lack of diversity means a historically ignored pipeline for talent. The solution to retention and growth opportunities requires funding that can come from state legislatures and a shift in approaching the challenge.

The importance of support services during the exploration-through-securing process of an infrastructure job cannot be emphasized enough, according to Kane. These challenges have led to underrepresentation in the infrastructure workforce. “Almost 15% of infrastructure workers are women, which is so highly skewed. Many women are unemployed or underemployed. Childcare is a factor,” he adds.

Another issue in underrepresented communities is transportation to a job or a training site. That’s led to pilot initiatives such as the DC Infrastructure Academy, a one-stop shop in a former elementary school for prospective workers in a low-income neighborhood.

Potential employers – including DC Water, Pepco, and Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority – support the program. The location removes the transportation barrier for people in the community so they can access resources to enter into careers.

DC Water employees building new sewage drainage tunnel (Photo: DC Water)
State and Local Governments are Already Working on Solutions

Kane’s research highlights other communities around the country which have extensive infrastructure repair and construction needs, and are already creating local workforce development programs to attract and train new workers.

Louisville’s Critical Repair and Reinvestment Plan (CRRP) brings together local educational, training and nonprofit groups with local employers, including minority and women business enterprises, for training, internships, mentorships and job pathways. The Louisville and Jefferson County Metropolitan Sewer District leads the program and launched JobLink to connect local workers and employers.

In Camden County, New Jersey, the Camden Collaborative Initiative brings together local community and business leaders to build a workforce that will address the county’s sewage issues and develop a greener energy infrastructure. In doing so, CCI has created a number of “workforce development initiatives, which have aimed to equip disadvantaged residents with the skills and job readiness they need to pursue careers in the trades, administration, and other positions in the water sector.”

San Francisco’s BAYWORK consists of 28 Bay-area water and wastewater utilities that work together on developing the local talent pool. The consortium provides scholarships to area community colleges for skills relevant to the water and wastewater industry, training, upskilling and recruiting. It even provides multilingual curriculum for educators teaching students as young as kindergarten to expose them to conservation, water awareness and more.

“This is the rising tide that lifts all boats,” Kane says.

“How do the employers and utilities and other infrastructure actors work with workforce boards, community colleges, community-based organizations to get the word out, to help and provide supportive services to workers who have traditionally been marginalized and underrepresented, including many women and people of color? That’s absolutely vital.”

This article includes additional reporting from WorkingNation contributing writer Victoria Lim.

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