Role of Workforce Development in Building the Infrastructure Workforce

The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) injects $1.2 trillion to fix America’s crumbling transportation system, ensure access to clean water, connect people to broadband and Moreover. But as infrastructure funding begins to flow to cities and states, it will take a skilled and diverse workforce to ensure the law’s extraordinary potential becomes a reality.

The government-funded Workforce Development System, authorized by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), is a network of federal, state, and local organizations and agencies that connect employers and applicants to education and training opportunities and to each other. The system should leverage its expertise and positioning to support the talent and diversity requirements of the Infrastructure Act. Industries supported by the legislation, such as construction, face significant labor shortages. They have also historically excluded labor market segments such as women and communities of color, groups that recent employment data show are still bearing the brunt of the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The majority of IIJA-funded construction jobs will be subject to the protections of the Davis-Bacon Act, which will ensure that workers receive prevailing wages and have access to workplace protections. Although workforce development is not the only solution to systemic inequalities in the labor market, it has the potential to create an ecosystem in which these problems are not perpetuated and, in doing so, to connect job seekers to good jobs — those that pay well and provide benefits — and help employers meet their labor needs.

While construction industries have applauded the infrastructure law, the upcoming works pose a significant challenge for an industry facing an aging workforce and serious difficulties recruiting new workers. Part of the problem – and the solution – is racial and gender diversity: 89% of the industry is male and nearly 88% is white, compared to 53% and 77.5% of the entire workforce American work, respectively.

The growth of registered apprenticeship programs is a promising development, as apprenticeships both provide pathways to middle-wage jobs and have recently been a tool to create more equitable access to those jobs. Black workers, for example, make up 14.9% of the apprenticeship workforce, 12.2% of the overall workforce, and 6.3% of the construction industry, suggesting that new entrants to this part of the workforce are more likely to reflect the population. Unionized apprenticeships have proven to be particularly effective, as apprentices are both more diverse than in non-union programs and graduates earn an average of $58,000 per year, or 46% more than non-union workers.

Increasing the supply of underrepresented workers alone will not solve the problem, but the provisions of the infrastructure bill and the policy decisions of infrastructure agencies may increase the demand for diversity. The IIJA includes local hire provisions, which allow for geographic or economic preference in the use of labor for a construction project, and recent funding announcements from infrastructure agencies such as the US Department of Transportation report a preference for projects that partner with and employ diverse communities.

The WIOA-authorized workforce development system has the right and responsibility to facilitate equitable access to quality jobs in the infrastructure sector. Only 1.6% of women who received services through the labor system were employed in the construction industry, compared to 10.9% of men. And while 6.4% of white workers were employed in the construction industry, that number drops to 5.9% of Hispanics and 3.3% of black workers. These numbers aren’t significantly worse than the overall labor market itself, but the workforce development system shouldn’t mirror the labor market – it should seek to improve it.

Labor system customers roughly reflect the gender composition of the workforce and include a significantly higher proportion of non-white workers: a population that the industry needs. Just under three-quarters of labor system clients do not have a post-secondary degree, and the construction industry does not need one. The opportunity for the labor system is significant: median annualized earnings for labor system participants were $27,128 in 2019. Median wages for construction are $48,610, and unionized workers can earn up to 58.6% more than non-unionized workers.

Federal, state, and local partners can make this partnership a reality through actions that lay the groundwork for continued collaboration as plans are developed and funds are disbursed, as well as to encourage the alignment of programs on the ground. For starters, federal and state infrastructure and labor agencies should collaborate behind the scenes, and their work should be reflected in procurement and policies that recognize and reward everyone’s priorities. For example, infrastructure procurements should reward proposals that prioritize workforce diversity, and workforce development procurements, such as funding for registered apprentices, should reward proposals aimed at diversifying the infrastructure workforce.

Workforce development systems should also actively partner with industry, labor, and state agencies to develop training and recruitment programs, and they should work with state and local partners. to advocate and implement policies such as local hiring that will increase local residents’ participation in the workforce. , and especially low-income workers of color.

The workforce development system, infrastructure industries and their workers need each other – and they need a concerted effort to expand and diversify the workforce that will build the bridges and the roads that were promised to us.

Marina Zhavoronkova is a Senior Workforce Development Fellow at the Center for American Progress. She was most recently Assistant Secretary for Programs and Performance in the Massachusetts Executive Office for Labor and Workforce Development.

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