Building a people-centered infrastructure plan on the road to economic recovery

By Katie Spiker, March 26, 2021

America’s roads and bridges, utilities, and IT systems are crumbling. Just last month, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released their 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. They found systems across the country in dire need of repair, including our bridges, public transit, roads, and schools. Thanks to a long history of deferred maintenance and neglect, 11 of 17 infrastructure categories were graded D+ or worse. The situation can’t be underestimated: our public safety is at risk – and so is our whole economy.

Though the need to invest in infrastructure goes back decades, there’s renewed momentum today. More than 10 million people remain unemployed across the country as a result of Covid-19. Policymakers and the Biden administration should look to infrastructure to spur job creation and our economic recovery.

To be successful, we must invest in skills training at the same time we invest in physical infrastructure.

Infrastructure is inherently people-centered; built for the people, by the people. Washington cannot focus recovery efforts around one without equal consideration for the other. Therefore, any investments made to physical infrastructure must include investments in training – so people have the skills they need to access jobs and so business has a pipeline of skilled workers.

We can’t pay to build a new bridge and just keep our fingers crossed that hundreds of skilled workers will show up to build it. Skilled welders, construction crews, and IT professionals don’t just magically appear. They must be trained at our community colleges and in our workforce system – and that doesn’t happen by accident. It happens because we intentionally invest in people’s skills training, education, and career pathways.

Not incidentally, these investments must serve people of color, women, and other communities who have historically been excluded from good careers in infrastructure. Industries hardest hit by the pandemic (like hospitality and retail) employ large percentages of these populations. Any worker forced to change careers, especially to one in infrastructure, will need significant retraining to do so.

Voters are on board: 84% say Congress should make major investments in infrastructure to stimulate the economy and create jobs. And they want to make sure that any jobs created are accessible to people in their communities. Overwhelming majorities want any public infrastructure plan to include investments in training (89%) and support services like childcare and transportation (84%).

Infrastructure investments lead to job creation

Previous infrastructure bills have been heralded as being job creators and vehicles of economic stimulus during recessions. The Obama Administration championed increased infrastructure investments under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) in 2009. ARRA invested $60 billion in projects to build and maintain water, transportation, and housing infrastructure.

Modernizing, repairing, and maintaining our infrastructure today could create millions of jobs over the next few years. ASCE estimates we would need a $2.6 trillion investment in our infrastructure just to bring our grade from C- to B-. Recent analysis by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce found that a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure could create up to eleven million new jobs. Estimates suggest that $1 billion invested in Federal highway and transit alone would create thirteen thousand jobs.

Job creation alone isn’t enough

For the 10 million workers out of work today, infrastructure job creation could be a pathway back to economic security. And construction, manufacturing, and energy sectors were reporting workforce challenges long before our current crisis. An infrastructure package could help us meet these challenges head-on.

But not without training.

Many people don’t realize that job creation packages don’t automatically include investments in training. Nearly half of all jobs created by a $1 trillion infrastructure package would require some form of postsecondary education or training.

Of those 10 million currently unemployed workers, more than 40% have no education past high school. These numbers are even more stark for people of color and women, who have less access to postsecondary education and have suffered disproportionate job loss during the pandemic. Community colleges, apprenticeship programs, and other training providers would shoulder the burden – programmatically and financially – to meet that new demand. Washington must give equal consideration to these factors for any recovery package that includes infrastructure investments.

We need people-centered infrastructure that meets industry demand

“People-centered” means ensuring federal funding prioritizes investments that modernize our infrastructure and help upskill and reskill America’s workers. It focuses on women and people of color – workers most impacted by Covid-19 and historically excluded from infrastructure jobs. The plan would invest in training, supports, and digital skills for workers who need access to good jobs. It supports partnerships between industry partners, educators, the public workforce system, labor, and human service organizations at the local level. And it would measure the impact of federal dollars spent today to ensure equitable outcomes from these investments tomorrow.

To accomplish putting workers at the center of an infrastructure investment, Congress should:

Dedicate 1% of an overall infrastructure package – or $35 billion – for initial training, including necessary digital skills, and support services to help local residents get and succeed in good infrastructure jobs.

  • The bipartisan BUILDS Act would support employers, education and training providers, labor unions, and workforce boards who are already working together to help train workers. BUILDS funds pre-employment training, transportation, career counseling and other supports that help people succeed in work-based learning programs.
  • Congress should also support dedicated funding to help workers who have been historically excluded from good training programs. They should replicate the success of the Healthcare Professionals Opportunity Grants (HPOG) program for infrastructure, Infrastructure Professional Opportunity Grants (IPOG).
  • Finally, Congress should dedicate funding to workers’ digital skill needs as part of any efforts to expand digital equity. Half of all construction, transportation and logistics workers lack necessary digital skills. Without these investments, Congress would exclude half of the current workforce from the benefits of jobs created in those industries.

Empower small and mid-sized businesses hit hardest by the pandemic to invest in skills training opportunities for workers who need it the most.

The bipartisan SKILL UP Act would expand the Work Opportunity Tax Credit to provide businesses with an increased credit for training workers through work-based learning opportunities. For small businesses hardest hit by the current crisis, SKILL UP would help businesses prepare workers who have historically been excluded from good infrastructure jobs for long-term careers.

Expand Federal financial aid to high-quality short-term training programs that help workers rapidly reskill.

For workers in industries like retail and hospitality hardest hit by the pandemic, high-quality short-term programs through community and technical colleges will be critical to transitioning into new jobs for which businesses are hiring. And for businesses and industry preparing to ramp up shovel-ready projects, access to skilled workers will be critical to meeting historic and increased hiring demands. The bipartisan JOBS Act would expand access to Pell grants to ensure more workers can access community and technical college programs. These short-term programs will be critical to preparing workers for new jobs in infrastructure industries.