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Workforce Development’s Role in Building the Infrastructure Labor Force

Construction and other industries supported by the new federal infrastructure law face labor shortages. Workforce development systems can help narrow that gap by supporting efforts to bring in women and workers of color.

(Gert-Jan van Vliet/Shutterstock)
The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) is injecting $1.2 trillion toward repairing America’s crumbling transportation system, ensuring access to clean water, connecting people to high-speed broadband and more. But as infrastructure funding starts to trickle down to cities and states, it will take a skilled and diverse workforce to ensure that 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 job-seekers to education and training opportunities and to each other. The system must leverage its expertise and positioning to support the talent and diversity demands of the infrastructure law. Industries supported by the legislation, such as construction, are facing significant labor shortages. They also have historically excluded segments of the labor market such as women and communities of color, groups that recent jobs data show are still bearing the brunt of the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The majority of the construction jobs funded by the IIJA will be subject to Davis-Bacon Act protections, which will ensure that workers are paid a prevailing wage and have access to workplace protections. While workforce development is not the sole solution to systemic inequities in the labor market, it has the potential to create an ecosystem in which those problems are not perpetuated and, in doing so, 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 work ahead poses 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 percent of the industry is male, and almost 88 percent is white, compared with 53 percent and 77.5 percent of the overall U.S. labor force, respectively.

The growth of registered apprenticeship programs is a promising shift, as apprenticeships both provide pathways into middle-wage jobs and recently have been a tool for creating more equitable access to these jobs. Black workers, for example, make up 14.9 percent of the apprenticeship workforce, 12.2 percent of the overall labor force and 6.3 percent of the construction industry, suggesting that newer entrants into this portion of the workforce are more likely to mirror the population. Union apprenticeships have been shown to be particularly impactful, as apprentices are both more diverse than in non-union programs and graduates earn an average of $58,000 a year, 46 percent more than non-union workers.

Increasing the supply of underrepresented workers alone won’t solve the problem, but provisions in the infrastructure bill and infrastructure agencies’ policy decisions can increase the demand for diversity. The IIJA includes local hiring provisions, which allow geographic or economic preference in use of labor for a construction project, and recent funding announcements from infrastructure agencies such as the U.S. Department of Transportation signal a preference for projects that partner with and employ diverse communities.

The workforce development system authorized by WIOA has the right and responsibility to facilitate equitable access to quality jobs in the infrastructure sector. Just 1.6 percent of women who received services through the workforce system were employed in the construction industry, compared with 10.9 percent of men. And while 6.4 percent of white workers were employed in the construction industry, that number shrinks to 5.9 percent of Hispanics and 3.3 percent of Black workers. These figures aren’t significantly worse than the overall labor market itself, but the workforce development system should not reflect the labor market — it should seek to better it.

Workforce system customers just about reflect the gender makeup of the labor force and include a significantly higher proportion of nonwhite workers: a population the industry needs. Just under three-quarters of workforce system customers do not have a postsecondary credential, and the construction industry does not require one. The opportunity for the workforce system is significant: Annualized median earnings for workforce system participants were $27,128 in 2019. Median wages for construction are $48,610, and unionized workers can earn as much as 58.6 percent more than non-unionized workers.

Federal, state and local partners can make this partnership a reality through actions that both set the groundwork for ongoing collaboration as plans are developed and funding is disbursed, as well as incentivize programmatic alignment on the ground. To begin with, federal and state infrastructure and labor agencies should be collaborating behind the scenes, and their work should be reflected in procurements and policies that recognize and reward each other’s priorities. For example, infrastructure procurements should reward proposals that prioritize diversity in the workforce, and workforce development procurements, such as registered apprenticeship funding, should reward proposals that seek to diversify the infrastructure workforce.

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

The workforce development system, the infrastructure industries and their workers need each other — and they need a concerted effort to expand and diversify the labor force that will build the bridges and roads we’ve been promised.

Marina Zhavoronkova is a senior fellow for workforce development at the Center for American Progress. She was most recently assistant secretary for programs and performance at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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