America’s Infrastructure Workforce Challenge Also Presents an Opportunity

From clogged roads and unsafe bridges to unreliable water supplies, America’s infrastructure challenges are well-known. But less well-known is the enormous infrastructure workforce challenge facing the country.

Infrastructure workers not only design and construct projects in the short-term, but maintain all types of infrastructure systems and facilities in the long-term—from ports and power plants to railroads and waterways. The problem is that many of these workers are nearing retirement and there is not a strong training pipeline to educate and equip a new generation of talent with the skills they need, says the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization.

Crucially, though, this workforce challenge also presents a workforce opportunity. “At a time when many Americans are still struggling to secure stable, well-paying jobs, infrastructure offers just that,” says Joseph Kane, Senior Research Associate at the Metropolitan Policy Program.

The enormous number and variety of infrastructure jobs make multiple career pathways available to workers across all skill levels and all regions. Estimates from 2018 find that nearly 17.2 million workers—12% of all workers nationally—are employed in infrastructure jobs, concentrated in 94 different occupations. Civil engineers, water treatment operators, and electricians are among the largest occupations overall, in addition to positions in the skilled trades, finance, and management. Truck drivers and material movers carry out a range of essential non-automated tasks. Taken together, infrastructure jobs employed more workers than retail (16.0 million) or manufacturing (12.6 million).

Infrastructure jobs also tend to offer more competitive and equitable wages. This is particularly true at lower ends of the income scale, meaning that even lower-skilled workers or those just beginning their careers can gain a stronger economic foothold. In fact, workers at these levels typically earn 30% higher wages compared to all occupations nationally.

Notably, infrastructure jobs have lower formal educational barriers to entry, offering more accessible pathways to continued learning and career growth. Many of these workers participate in extensive on-the-job training and develop competencies in a wide range of transferable skills, including mechanical, technical, and scientific knowledge.

The fact that infrastructure jobs lead to a number of different career pathways, pay higher wages, and require lower levels of educational attainment speaks to their central role in promoting greater economic opportunity, notes Kane.

Kane says policymakers need to accelerate investment in ongoing educational and workforce development. And employers, educators, labor groups, and training organizations have a role to play in recruiting, training, and retaining a skilled infrastructure workforce. He notes that there remains a need for more a widespread adoption of solutions, including apprenticeships and hiring practices that support underrepresented communities. Los Angeles Unified School District’s “We Build” program is one such program that uses hands-on training to prepare participants to enter union apprenticeships and careers in the construction field.

“Now is the time to act, not only in advance of the 2020 presidential election, but to finally fix America’s infrastructure and support a skilled workforce for decades to come,” urges Kane.

To address skilled workforce shortages in the infrastructure industry, Southern California Partnership for Jobs advocates for expanded access to in-demand career training programs and local union apprenticeship opportunities—such as programs provided by the Carpenters Union Participation Program, the Laborers Training & Retraining Trust Fund of Southern California, and the Operating Engineers Training Trust (Local 12). Visit https://rebuildsocal.org/careers/ for more information.

Source: The Brookings Institution

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