Publication Date: August 17, 2021
The opportunity afforded by infrastructure investments to connect workers with good paying, attainable careers
If enacted, the leading federal infrastructure proposal affords a generational opportunity to tackle several pressing challenges. On the one hand, these investments will help to address long neglected physical infrastructure deficiencies and catalyze a move towards a cleaner energy future. At the same time, a major boost in infrastructure spending can create millions of good jobs that are attainable for workers without four-year degrees, a population that has benefited from a smaller and smaller share of the nation’s good jobs over decades and that has experienced the slowest recovery from the COVID-19-induced recession. But to realize the former goal—the physical aims of infrastructure investments—policymakers will need to be intentional about the latter—building inclusive, skilled infrastructure workforces.
At least one estimate forecasts that the leading infrastructure package would create around 1 million jobs, while others predict several million over a decade. This would be on top of what is already a sizable component of the workforce: in 2020, infrastructure employed roughly one in nine American workers. Most infrastructure jobs today and those of the near future can be accessed without a bachelor’s degree, and these jobs offer higher wages than most other jobs attainable with that level of formal education.
But the benefits of these good jobs have not been equally accessible. Much like the infrastructure workforce of decades ago, today’s infrastructure workforce skews heavily white, older, and male. On top of limited paths to entry, women and non-white people within the infrastructure workforce earn lower wages due to wage gaps within occupations and occupational segregation.
To broaden opportunity to benefit from good quality, in-demand infrastructure jobs and mobility opportunities within the sector, policymakers at all levels will need to take deliberate, multifaceted action.
The role of states in building an inclusive infrastructure workforce
States can play a pivotal role in fostering an inclusive, skilled infrastructure workforce. Not only will a significant portion of federal infrastructure spending likely flow through states, but state governments and local governments together typically spend the majority of public investment in infrastructure and own the majority of public infrastructure assets. States also have substantial stimulus funding from the American Rescue Plan Act and some existing flexible workforce funding (e.g. WIOA Governor’s Reserve Funds) that can be used to complement the infusion of federal infrastructure dollars. And at the most fundamental level, states have a role in shaping the workforce and education system to support the workforce needs of growing economic sectors and equipping residents with opportunities to connect to good quality employment.
This brief presents a framework for states towards this aim. It first provides key context on the infrastructure workforce, including demographic and wage disparities that underscore the need for states to foster inclusive pathways to good infrastructure jobs. The remainder focuses on a three-pronged framework to help state policymakers consider multifaceted, complementary approaches, centering on the following strategies:
1. Broaden exposure and recruitment.
2. Grow a supply of effective infrastructure-related training programs and improve success in those programs by bolstering key supports.
3. Spur inclusive hiring practices and combat the prevalence of harassment and discrimination in major infrastructure sectors.
1. This report focuses on physical infrastructure broadly to include sectors such as energy, transportation, telecommunications, water, green infrastructure and climate resiliency, as well as public works.
2. Heather Long, “Many left behind in this recovery have something in common: >No college degree,” Washington Post, April 22, 2021.
3. Anthony Carnevale, quoted in Nancy Marshall-Genzer, “What kind of jobs could the infrastructure bill lead to?” Marketplace, August 2, 2021.
4. Anthony P. Carnevale and Nicole Smith, “15 Million Infrastructure Jobs: An Economic Shot in the Arm to the COVID-19 Recession,” Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, 2021.
5. Joseph Kane, “Biden needs to create an infrastructure talent pipeline, not just more jobs,” Brookings Institution, January 29, 2021.
7. Caroline George and Joseph W. Kane, “Reversing America’s poor track record on inclusivity in infrastructure jobs,” Brookings Institution, May 17, 2021.
8. Mark Wolf, “Infrastructure Bill Update: What Could It Mean for States?” National Conference of State Legislatures, August 3, 2021.
9. See Elizabeth McNichol “It’s Time for States to Invest in Infrastructure,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, March 19, 2019, for an overview of how federal grants fit into state infrastructure spending. See Peter G. Peterson Foundation, “State and Local Infrastructure Spending: A Closer Look,” June 17, 2020, for how state and local spending compare to federal spending on infrastructure.