Don’t Just Invest in Infrastructure; Invest in Workers Too

Don’t Just Invest in Infrastructure; Invest in Workers Too

August 27, 2019  | ENO CENTER FOR TRANSPORTATION

Summer marks the height of construction season. As many of us hit the road, we have probably seen several projects—and workers—along the way.

When we’re not traveling, we might overlook these projects and struggle to recognize just how many workers keep our transportation systems going. Construction is always happening, of course, and remains a key driver for jobs nationally. Yet, frequently out of sight and out of mind are all the engineers, technicians, operators, and other workers who oversee our roads, rails, ports, waterways, and more.

Building and maintaining the country’s infrastructure depends on a skilled workforce that is big enough, young enough, and ready enough to take on these tasks for decades to come. But this workforce faces massive hiring gaps, is rapidly aging, and is increasingly lacking the skills and experience to get the job done. It’s past time leaders in Washington and elsewhere not only invest in infrastructure, but also advance efforts around stronger infrastructure workforce recruitment, training, and retention.

Recognizing the scale of the workforce challenge—and opportunity—would be a good start. As past Brookings research has shown, infrastructure jobs offer a variety of long-term career pathways across the country. In 2018, these jobs employed 17.2 million workers, or more than 1 out of every 10 workers nationally. While jobs in water, energy, and telecommunications are represented here, the biggest occupations tend to concentrate in transportation; think of the millions of truck drivers, material movers, and other support workers who operate, maintain, and ultimately use our infrastructure. And although AVs and new technologies are changing the nature of their work, many of these jobs aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

It’s not just the size of this workforce that should grab attention and prompt action either. The fact that infrastructure jobs can offer more equitable wages and have lower formal educational barriers to entry speaks to their ability to promote greater economic opportunity nationally. This is especially true for lower-income workers who may lack advanced degrees. With additional on-the-job training, they could fill entry-level positions that pay 30 percent more compared to most other lower-skilled jobs seen nationally. For instance, most paving equipment operators, highway maintenance workers, and bus and truck mechanics only have a high school diploma or less but do still earn competitive wages.

That doesn’t mean it’s always easy to fill these jobs, however, and the need for more extensive work-based learning and skills development remains an ongoing challenge nationally. Infrastructure workers depend on a wide body of knowledge, including a combination of hard and soft skills, that they can only develop through continued training and learning. Ensuring these workers gain the needed competencies and leadership skills to grow their careers is essential, too, in addition to supporting versatile and portable credentials. Creating a sustainable pipeline of talent, and holding onto that talent, can ideally support a more diverse and imaginative class of leaders into the future.

So how do we get there?

Increased visibility and understanding of the infrastructure workforce helps, especially among policymakers who may not be as familiar with these issues, but control the purse strings for additional training and education. The Trump administration and other federal leaders, for example, have continually raised the possibility of more support for apprenticeships. Still, simply spending more money isn’t necessarily a solution in itself, and this process shouldn’t start and end at the national level. Truly investing in our infrastructure workforce should be driven from the bottom-up, where many regional leaders—including employers, educational institutions, community organizations, and labor groups, among others—are already better coordinating plans and programs. Building from these efforts and replicating best practices across the country, from new internships and mentorships to new partnerships and sector-wide strategies, can drive more widespread experimentation and action.

Labor Day is a good time to not only reflect on the summer but also to plan ahead for the fall and beyond. As the construction season winds down, it’s important to remember that our infrastructure projects and workforce needs are not ending but should remain ongoing priorities in the months and years to come.


Joseph W. Kane is a senior research associate and associate fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. Kane’s work focuses on a wide array of built environment issues, including transportation and water infrastructure. Across several projects, he has concentrated on the use of innovative datasets, combining them with other qualitative measures to better assess current and future infrastructure needs. From the exploration of metropolitan freight trends to the first-ever analysis of infrastructure jobs at a metropolitan level, he has coordinated the production of new metrics and developed other interactive content to better inform decisions by policymakers and practitioners across the country.
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