In looking at the struggle for California to compete for the big federal Infrastructure pot of money, there are other areas of concern. Perhaps the most compelling is that even if California can get its act together, it may not be able to muster up the workforce needed to build the improvements. In The incredible shrinking infrastructure workforce — and what to do about it, by Joseph W. Kane, (Brookings, Link), we learn the U.S. infrastructure workforce is rapidly losing talent.
Kane describes how the billions of dollars the Feds unleashed for infrastructure projects “has the enormous potential to support up to 15 million new jobs over the next decade, according to the most ambitious estimates. Many state and local entities eligible to receive this funding—think transportation departments, water utilities, and more—are scrambling to secure new pots of money and get workers ready for all the projects to come.”
But the problem with all those news jobs, is that we are hemorrhaging current infrastructure workers and having a hard time finding new workers. Kane says, “The U.S. infrastructure workforce is rapidly losing talent. As recent Brookings research shows, nearly 17 million infrastructure workers are projected to permanently leave their jobs over the next decade due to a wave of retirements, job transfers, and other labor market shifts. Infrastructure workers are not just construction workers—they are plumbers, electricians, civil engineering technicians, or dozens of other occupations, primarily involved in the skilled trades. And they are responsible for operating and maintaining our roads, rails, pipes, power plants, and other facilities over many decades. Filling these shoes is not simply about patching a pothole or building a bridge—it represents a generational challenge affecting many industries nationally.”
“Yet filling these new infrastructure jobs also represents a generational opportunity,” says Kane. “Infrastructure jobs pay 30% more to lower-income workers and those just starting their careers relative to all jobs nationally, while also posing lower formal educational barriers to entry. But too many workers—especially younger workers, women, and people of color—continue to be sidelined from these careers. The infrastructure workforce is aging, male, and white; only 11% are 24 years old or younger, 18.5% are women, and under a third are people of color. Many prospective job seekers not only lack awareness these positions exist, but they also lack flexible and accessible pathways to fill them, including struggles to gain needed on-the-job training and limited supportive services (e.g., child care, transportation).”
Kane points out, “Difficulties in hiring, training, and retaining a younger, more diverse workforce limit economic opportunity, slow down projects, and pose the very real possibility of mission failure for infrastructure employers, including the owners and operators of these systems. These difficulties are also likely to get worse given the country’s declining—and diversifying—labor force participation. The BLS estimates that the U.S. labor force participation rate—the percentage of the population that is working or actively looking for work—has gone up since the pandemic, to 62.6% last month. However, this rate is still lower than the pre-pandemic level (63.3%), and further declines are projected over the next decade (down to 60.1%)—continuing a longer-term trend as more baby boomers exit the labor force.”
There are big demographic changes in workforce participation, too. Kane says, “Amid these broader declines, an even more significant change may soon impact the infrastructure workforce: The overall labor force will grow from 161 million workers to 169 million (an additional 4.8%) over the next decade, largely driven by women and people of color—the groups traditionally overlooked and marginalized across the infrastructure sector. From 2021 to 2031, the number of women in the U.S. labor force will increase by 6.1%, while the number of men will only increase 3.5%. At the same time, the number of Black and Latino or Hispanic workers will increase 8.2% and 23.6%, respectively, while the number of white workers will only increase 1.6%. The BLS does not separately report other racial groups—including Asian American and Native American workers—but groups in the “all other” category will grow the fastest (24.1%).
Action is required to produce the needed workforce. Kane says, “Bridging the infrastructure sector’s talent gaps in the short term needs to coincide with building a stronger long-term talent pipeline, which crucially depends on reaching and supporting more diverse workers. That means conducting more extensive community outreach to reach new and different workers, including additional demonstration projects. That means collaborating with workforce development boards, educational institutions, community-based organizations, and other partners to define hiring and training priorities, expand work-based learning options, and provide more supportive services. That means changing how infrastructure projects are done, including new local hiring standards, procurement strategies, and contracting practices to reach women- and minority-owned businesses.”
In conclusion, Kane says, “The key is for infrastructure and workforce leaders to both recognize the urgency of this challenge and the need to start experimenting with a different approach. Time is fleeting, and the federal money is already flowing.”