Investing in people to power our infrastructure

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In the coming years, the federal government will invest nearly $1 trillion in infrastructure projects aimed at rebuilding our nation’s roads and bridges, expanding broadband, supporting the transition to clean energy, and upgrading water, public transit, and utility systems and investing in more climate-responsive and resilient infrastructure. This historic bipartisan infrastructure investment signed into law late last year is expected to create millions of good-paying jobs over the next decade, promising a pathway back to the workforce for a number of people who lost work during the COVID-19 recession. Making good on that promise, however, will require another bipartisan federal investment in people now so we can build an inclusive infrastructure workforce for the 21st century.

Investing in people means investing in skills training, economic supports, and local employment strategies so that more workers can transition into infrastructure careers. It also means investing in people most impacted by the pandemic recession and longstanding structural inequities so that everyone can benefit from newly created infrastructure jobs. As society transforms and the global impacts of climate change increase, the demand for infrastructure to be more resilient, sustainable, and equitable is stronger than ever before. It will take a diverse, multi-generational workforce to answer the call to action.

Workers of color, immigrants, and women experienced disproportionate job loss during the pandemic because they were overrepresented in industries hit hardest by economic shutdowns. These same workers have been historically excluded from quality careers in infrastructure fields. If infrastructure job creation is going to contribute to a more equitable economy, we need workforce investments that disrupt these patterns of occupational segregation and forge a different path forward for a more inclusive future.

In addition to benefiting workers, new workforce investments can benefit infrastructure-related businesses by ensuring there are enough trained workers to carry out a decade’s worth of projects. Even before the pandemic, employers in fields from construction to utilities faced challenges of an aging, retiring workforce. The federal infrastructure investment will only heighten the demand for trained workers.

Workforce investments can also benefit local communities in desperate need of infrastructure upgrades by growing a local workforce that has the capacity to build a clean energy future, repair roads, bridges and transit, steward safer, cleaner, and more resilient water systems, expand broadband, shore up the power grid, and restore ports and airports.

So, what can Congress and the Biden administration do to invest in people and build an inclusive infrastructure workforce for the 21st century?

To start, they can advance key bipartisan workforce proposals poised to move this Congress. These include investments that would significantly expand access to skills training and economic supports for working people.

Proposed investments in registered apprenticeship would support people in entering infrastructure careers. These investments could promote equity in infrastructure fields if they include pre-apprenticeship programs designed to offer on-ramps for underrepresented workers and if they help apprenticeship programs invest in diverse workplace mentors who foster inclusion.

Likewise, proposed investments in skills training for workers before and after hire could ensure people can train not just for a first job but for a sustainable infrastructure career. Training pathways are key for creating opportunities for women and people of color, who are concentrated in entry level utility and transportation roles, to advance in their careers.

Industry partnerships, which bring together local businesses, unions and worker organizations, community colleges, training providers, and community organizations are a proven model for helping workers enter and advance in a local industry and for helping local companies support and maintain an inclusive talent ecosystem. Investments in these partnerships would build the capacity of talent pipelines that support training, hiring, and career advancement for local workers long-term.

Economic supports for working people, such as childcare and transportation assistance, will also be key to making skills training and career transitions possible for those who were hurt financially by the pandemic and are looking to enter the infrastructure workforce. Economic supports can also fill resource gaps caused by racial and gender income disparities, which were exacerbated by pandemic-related job loss.

Congress can also act now to make Pell Grants available to eligible students enrolled in high quality, shorter-term education and training programs, and to improve data on postsecondary enrollment and outcomes. Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that 60 percent of jobs created through the federal infrastructure bill will require six months of training or less. Expanding Pell Grant eligibility for shorter-term education and training programs will be important for building the infrastructure workforce equitably since Black and Latinx students take on a disproportionate amount of student debt due to the racial wealth gap. Better data on college access, costs, and outcomes can also help workers make choices about training options and support efforts to close chronic equity gaps. Congress can act on both of these issues by including the JOBS Act and the College Transparency Act in a bipartisan innovation act.

While investing in people-powered infrastructure will require Congress to act, there are also steps the Biden administration can take now to foster an inclusive infrastructure workforce through implementation of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Agencies overseeing infrastructure projects can work closely with the Departments of Education and Labor to maximize opportunities for training infrastructure workers. Federal agencies can also incentivize state and local governments to prioritize local residents in training and employment plans for federally funded projects. To track the progress of these efforts, the federal government can measure the jobs outcomes of its infrastructure projects with attention to the race, gender and geography.

Polling by National Skills Coalition shows that 89 percent of voters want an infrastructure plan to be paired with investments in training so that local residents can access these jobs. The American people are on board with people-powered infrastructure. Our policy leaders need to be too in order to build the inclusive workforce that 21st century infrastructure systems will demand.

Brooke DeRenzis is Chief Strategy Officer at National Skills Coalition and Victoria Johnson is Social Value/Equity Practice Leader at Americas at Jacobs Global Strategic Consulting.          

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