The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law: What State Skills Advocates Need to Know to Influence Implementation of Transportation Dollars to meet Community Skills Needs

By Megan Evans, June 07, 2022

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), or Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), as it is colloquially known, goes further than any previous infrastructure bill in acknowledging the need to train and create career pathways for women and people of color in infrastructure fields.

In order to fill the millions of good-paying infrastructure jobs that will be created by this law, workers (both unemployed people and people who want to transition into this growing sector) will need access to training in order to transition into a career in infrastructure. Access to training will be particularly important for those who were most impacted by the pandemic recession, including women, immigrants, people of color, young adults, and people without training or education beyond high school. Some of these workers have also been underrepresented in infrastructure fields.

Prior to the pandemic and passage of this bill, the construction industry was already facing serious challenges hiring workers with the necessary training. A tight labor market, limited access to training, and racial and gender discrimination contributed to the hiring problem. The transportation sector also faced labor constraints in repair and maintenance, while major urban transit systems faced aging rail and bus stock.

Now with accelerated retirements, the transportation industry is even more in need of trained workers to implement the projects that will be funded by the infrastructure law.

The IIJA can be implemented in a way that meets some of the skills needs of states and communities across the country. But there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that the bill supports people’s access to infrastructure training and not just hard infrastructure.

What is in IIJA – and what is not

In total, the IIJA includes $550 billion in new spending to support transportation projects, broadband and digital equity, clean energy, and updates to the power grid. Of that funding roughly 60% ($280 billon) is reserved for repairing, modernizing, and building new transportation assets.

The Biden Administration initially released the proposals that later became IIJA in concert with a “human infrastructure” component, the American Families Plan. Together, these plans made up the President’s Build Back Better plan and included proposed investments of $80 billion for the workforce system and education through our community and technical college and adult education systems, as well as proposals that would have supported access to training at community colleges. Unfortunately, only IIJA passed.

While IIJA does not include the same level of funding that Build Back Better proposed, it does include significant resources that could be accessed for workforce development and skills training.

The potential funding sources and select policy provisions within the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law are essential to the four key strategies NSC network partners have identified as critical for successful implementation of people-powered infrastructure:

  • Aligning agencies around a common vision for people-powered infrastructure 
  • Expanding access to inclusive, high-quality skills training for infrastructure fields 
  • Providing economic supports to reduce costs of needs such as childcare and transportation   
  • Including local resident training and employment plans for federal infrastructure projects and providing accountability for jobs outcomes  

Each of the provisions of IIJA highlighted below can be used to support the four priorities discussed above – ensuring agency alignment, expanding access to skills training, providing economic supports to reduce costs of support services, and including local resident training and employment plans and accountability for job outcomes.

States can create Transportation Human Capital State Plans that enable people-powered infrastructure

Under IIJA, U.S. Department of Transportation (US DOT) is required to encourage states to create 5-year human capital plans. US DOT has until May 2023 to release guidance and seek plans from the states meaning now is a critical time for workforce advocates to start building relationships with state DOT officials who will be tasked with developing them.

In crafting these five-year plans, states will include descriptions of anticipated coordination with education providers, workforce boards, industry, and unions. The state plans are also meant to include strategies to ensure workers have access to skills necessary to fill jobs created by businesses with federal funding under IIJA.

Creating these plans is voluntary for states, however. That means it will be up to advocates to work with state decisionmakers to ensure the plans have a comprehensive, statewide approach to their transportation workforce. This is a critical opportunity for advocates to provide guidance to policymakers, connect them to workforce experts in their network, and ensure state plans include our shared priorities to support people powered infrastructure.

States can access funds from surface transportation formula grants to support skills

The IIJA includes considerable funding that states and regions could use for workforce training and education and support services. Very little funding in the legislation, however, is explicitly dedicated to the workforce.

Still, state executives, agencies, and lawmakers have the authority to leverage billions of certain federal transportation formula funds to support a well-trained workforce, ensuring access to good jobs today for millions of workers and the long-term maintenance of physical assets.

Previous surface transportation bills permitted a variety of uses for these funds and IIJA expands the allowable uses to include outreach and partnership with workforce boards and labor organizations and provision of pre-apprenticeship, apprenticeship and on-the-job training opportunities.

Both Oregon and Maryland have passed state legislation that directs their state DOTs to allocate ½ of 1% of these formula dollars to supporting either childcare or convening of industry or sector partnerships, respectively. If more states took this approach, the result would be billions of dollars available to support strategies that broaden opportunities for workers and the pipeline of new hires for businesses.

Recipients of capital grants can use that funding to support workforce strategies and equity plans

Over the next five years, the Department of Transportation will award at least $60 billion to states, localities and other public entities through competitive grant programs. These grants are intended to support capital expenses associated with building and maintaining roads, bridges, transit and other modes of transportation projects. Little of this funding is required to be targeted to workforce programs — only a grant program targeting the procurement of low- and no- emissions buses and related facilities requires that 5% be set aside for workforce development. There is, however, a more explicit focus compared to previous surface transportation reauthorization’s on ensuring grant applicants have a strategy to train and hire workers and provide access to good jobs.

First, U.S. DOT will give priority to applicants for these capital project grants that address how a proposed project will decrease transportation costs, support good-jobs, and create workforce opportunities for underrepresented populations including using local hire – all key components of people-powered infrastructure.

Even as state and municipal applicants will be asked to incorporate these considerations into applications, skills advocates will need to proactively engage to make connections to existing programs and organizations and provide guidance on proposed strategies.

Next, once awarded a capital grant, states, cities and other recipients will have discretion over how to fund the activities in the application. This means it will be critical that recipients put funding behind the workforce plans identified in applications to U.S. DOT.

This chart outlines competitive grant opportunities for public entities over the next five years. Applications for each of these grants will receive a preference if it includes a workforce and equity plan. Funds from each of these grants may be used to support the implementation of these plans, but it is not required in federal statute.

States can access funds for on-the-job training and supportive services for workers who have been underrepresented in infrastructure jobs

Access to supportive services like reliable transportation, childcare, and career counseling is critical to ensuring that individuals successfully participate in training programs and can access good infrastructure jobs. The Federal Highway Administration’s On-the-Job Training Supportive Services (OJT SS) allows states to request funds to support costs of supportive services. Eligible costs include state or community-based programs that target apprenticeship and training programs to women, people of color, and other populations of workers who have historically been excluded from infrastructure industries.

IIJA continues the OJT SS program. Practically, funding for OJT SS falls far behind either worker need or business demand. Funding is unchanged from previous surface transportation reauthorizations remaining at $10 million annually – a statutory level that has been in place since the 1970’s. While this funding can be used to reduce the costs of childcare and transportation, the federal investments are simply too small to make a significant impact in providing for workers’ needs. As such, this is an area where skills advocates can work with state DOTs and Workforce agencies to identify how additional resources from other federal and state sources can be pooled to serve a greater number of individuals’ needs for job training and career success.

States and local areas can leverage new provisions that allow preference in contracting for hiring workers from the communities in which programs are built

Local hire policies enable states and cities to give preference in contracting to entities who will hire residents from the communities in which projects are being built. However, outside of a few pilot programs, local hire practices have been banned by the federal government since the 1980s as they were ruled a hindrance to competition.

With the enactment of the BIL, the ban was overturned for highway and transportation projects. This means that federal funding can once again be used to incentivize local hire when states, cities and regions contract out work. It also means applications for competitive capital grants from the federal government will prioritize projects that include the practice.

This will ensure that jobs will be available in certain local areas, but it doesn’t ensure that the existing local workforce will be able to access those jobs. States and local areas should leverage planning processes and funding under capital grants and funds from formula grants to support the local partnerships and training opportunities that enable workers to access infrastructure jobs.

There is still work to be done at the Federal level

Even as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law goes further than previous surface transportation bills in supporting workforce training and ensuring that the jobs created by the law benefit workers who are underrepresented in infrastructure fields, in the transportation sector, there are areas where the law does not go far enough.

  • IIJA provides insufficient dedicated funding for workforce training or support services critical to accomplish capital projects funded by the bill and to support racial equity in access to jobs. This means that without investments from other funds or projects, workers in need of access to training programs and economic supports will continue to be unable to access good infrastructure jobs.
  • IIJA provides insufficient guidance to U.S. DOT on accountability measures for workforce outcomes. Congress should direct the U.S. DOT to collect – or U.S. DOT should require grant recipients to report on – workforce outcomes from capital grants. These outcomes should include hiring under local hire provisions, training workers received, and outcome metrics that align to workforce and education programs like wages and continued employment over time. This data be disaggregated by race, ethnicity, and gender so there is transparency around how different workers are faring and so we can hold policies accountable to equitable outcomes.

The infrastructure bill will be implemented over the next five years, and advocates should not delay efforts to engage all levels of government. Grant opportunities, formula funding, on-the-job training, new local hire capabilities, and state human capital plans will all require engagement and input from skills advocates to direct resources to where they are most needed. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will create 2 million new jobs, but it is up to advocates to ensure that workers have access to them and that they are good jobs.