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As communities across the country get ready to implement new infrastructure projects, National Skills Coalition is calling on our policymakers to invest in skills training, supportive services, and local employment strategies that can support an inclusive 21st century infrastructure workforce.
Last fall, President Biden signed into law a historic, nearly $1 trillion bill to invest in American infrastructure. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), (also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law) will spur tons of projects that rebuild our nation’s roads and bridges, expand broadband, and upgrade public transit, utility, and clean energy systems.
This investment can meet the demand for resilient, sustainable, and equitable infrastructure, which will only increase in the midst of global transformation and climate change. But investing in hard infrastructure isn’t enough – we must also invest in a diverse, multigenerational workforce trained to power our infrastructure.
Indeed, the IIJA has the potential to create millions of good-paying jobs that could offer new careers to workers impacted by the COVID-19 recession, as well as by longstanding structural inequities. Workers of color and women experienced disproportionate job loss during the pandemic and are underrepresented in infrastructure jobs. These dual trends reflect established patterns of occupational segregation that need to be disrupted to fully tap the talent of all workers.
If jobs created by the IIJA are going to contribute to an inclusive economic recovery, we need new policies aimed at developing the next generation of infrastructure workers. Policymakers at all levels – federal, state, and local, can take action now to invest in people-powered infrastructure.
People-powered infrastructure policies will benefit both workers and businesses in infrastructure industries. 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 infrastructure workers.
Apprenticeship is a known model for training workers in infrastructure fields. Due to its “earn and learn” approach, apprenticeship can be a particularly powerful job training strategy for workers who have lost their jobs during the pandemic and need to train for a career while also earning a paycheck. Public policies intended to expand apprenticeship can diversify infrastructure hiring pipelines if they invest in equity-advancing practices, such as pre-apprenticeship and mentoring programs. Pre-apprenticeship programs that are aligned with industry needs and provided in partnership with culturally and linguistically competent organizations can provide valuable on-ramps to apprenticeship programs for workers of color and women. Likewise, investments aimed at diversifying apprenticeship mentors can foster workplace inclusion and leadership for underrepresented workers.
Policy leaders can also make debt-free financial aid more readily available for short-term training programs that meet quality assurance standards and are offered by public community and technical colleges. 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. Debt free financial aid is important for building the infrastructure workforce in an equitable way since Black and Latinx students take on a disproportionate amount of student debt due to the racial wealth gap.
Industry-recognized, short-term training programs can support workers who are just entering the infrastructure field, as well as frontline workers looking to further build their skills so they can advance their careers. Training pathways are key for creating advancement opportunities for women and people of color who are concentrated in entry level utility and transportation roles. To support workers throughout their careers, these programs should result in credentials that lead to good jobs, continued education and training, and career advancement.
Industry partnerships bring together local businesses, unions and worker organizations, community colleges, training providers, and community organizations, to develop local and industry-specific workforce strategies. Industry partnerships are a proven model for helping workers enter and advance in a local industry and helping local companies support an inclusive talent ecosystem. Industry partnerships also address specific challenges identified by industry stakeholders representing both workers and businesses.
Industry partnerships have the potential to expand access to quality infrastructure careers for people of color and women. Since industry partnerships intentionally broker training, hiring, and advancement opportunities between workers and employers within a particular sector, they can be used to disrupt occupational segregation if they are equity focused. They can also broker apprenticeship strategies, validate industry-specific credentials, and connect community college workforce programs with employers.
Policymakers can specifically invest in industry partnerships’ capacity to assess industry needs, convene partners to develop and align workforce strategies and programs, and broker services. While these activities are critical, they are rarely directly funded by public dollars.
Policymakers can also fund infrastructure industry partnerships to develop training, hiring, and advancement strategies intentionally designed to increase opportunities for people of color and women, and to help employers, unions, and training providers adopt and measure equitable, inclusive practices. Such funding can be coupled with technical assistance and learning communities that build partnerships’ capacity to engage in equity-advancing practices.
The costs of training for an infrastructure job go beyond tuition or training fees. Expenses like books and supplies, equipment, transportation, and childcare add up; and they can be prohibitive for adults who are already covering the costs of supporting a family on a limited budget following one of the greatest economic crises in our history.
Policymakers can invest in economic supports for services like childcare and transportation and supplies and equipment to make skills training and career transitions possible for people who are trying to get by financially.
Economic supports can fill resource gaps caused by structural racial and gender inequities and exacerbated by pandemic-related job loss. Indeed, investments in affordable, accessible, high-quality childcare will be essential if we want women to be part of the 21st century infrastructure workforce. Similarly, investments in transportation supports are key for construction and infrastructure workers who need to travel to project worksites. These economic supports are particularly important for workers who are entering an apprenticeship or a first job in the field and have not yet realized the full earnings potential of an infrastructure career.
The IIJA is intended to invest in local communities –including those that have been under-resourced– so that everyone has access to rails and roads, clean water, high-speed internet, clean energy and climate resilient infrastructure. We can bring even more benefit to local communities by incentivizing training, hiring, and career advancement of local residents for newly created infrastructure jobs.
Federal, state, and local officials can incentivize the training and hiring of local workers through the bidding process for federally funded infrastructure projects. The U.S. Employment Plan – developed by Jobs to Move America and approved by the Department of Transportation – is a possible model. The plan encourages bidders to include workforce training, employment, and jobs in proposals, with a focus on good jobs and equity. Investments in the capacity of local training programs are also key to supporting local hire.
Additionally, policymakers can ensure that skills training opportunities are available throughout local workers’ careers so people can train for a first job and a sustainable career in the field. Strategies like industry partnerships and short-term workforce programs are key to supporting workers in getting a first job and through the life of their career.
When we have good data, we can use it to hold our policymakers accountable for better, more equitable outcomes.
To track the progress of efforts toward building an inclusive infrastructure workforce, federal agencies can mandate data collection on who is trained and hired through federal infrastructure spending, disaggregated by race/ethnicity, gender, geography and other factors.
The federal government can also report on long-term employment outcomes—particularly for workers of color and women who are underrepresented in the infrastructure field.
There must be an investment in the capacity to collect and report data, where local training and community organizations are part of data collection.
Join our Campaign!
The policy agenda laid out here was informed by the recommendations of an Infrastructure Industry Recovery Panel — leading experts working in local communities — convened by National Skills Coalition and Business Leaders United in 2021 (an Initiative of National Skills Coalition). Panelists represented business, labor, education and training organizations, and others working in construction, utilities, transportation, and clean energy fields.
In partnership with the Industry Recovery panel and network members like you, we have influenced federal policy. The IIJA included $1 billion-plus in workforce investments connected to infrastructure that will engage the Departments of Transportation, Energy and Labor.
While our advocacy has fueled progress, policymakers have a lot of work left to do to truly support people powered infrastructure and drive an inclusive economic recovery.
Will you join our campaign and urge policymakers to support people powered infrastructure today? Sign our petition now and we’ll be in touch with opportunities to influence federal, state, and local policies that give people access to training for careers in infrastructure.