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14.2 Million Americans Work in Infrastructure. What Does That Mean?

Linesmen Travis Shepherd (L) and Will Hall (R) install new lines and a street lamp on a a new utility pole in Silver Spring, Maryland July 4, 2012 (REUTERS/Gary Cameron).

Eleven percent of the American workforce is employed in an infrastructure job. In the coming decade, that number is projected to grow even higher. By 2022, the number of new infrastructure workers is projected to grow by 9 percent and nearly one quarter of current infrastructure workers will retire or otherwise leave their jobs, requiring 2.7 million new workers to replace them.

It’s clear that infrastructure equals jobs. But what, exactly, is infrastructure? And what’s an infrastructure job?

While the term didn’t come into common usage until the 1980s, infrastructure has been a foundation of the modern world for a very long time. It is the set of underlying systems—like electrical grids, roads, sewer systems and shipping networks—on which our economy is built.

Research from the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program takes a closer look at infrastructure in America with a specific eye on the jobs it both supports and relies on.

What counts as an infrastructure job?

President Obama has talked about supporting “shovel ready” construction projects to boost infrastructure investment and create new jobs. But infrastructure jobs are more than just construction jobs.

Brookings research defines infrastructure jobs across 95 different occupations and 42 industries. Each of these jobs helps directly support one of seven infrastructure sectors: Intra-Metro Transportation (local roads and public transport); Inter-Metro Transportation (passenger rail, airports); Trade and Logistics (freight, rail, seaports, and trucking); Energy (gas pipelines, utility facilities); Water (drinking water, sewage/water treatment facilities); Telecommunications (broadband, wireless, and satellite); and Public Works (streetscapes, land redevelopment, and landfills).

Here are a few more facts:

More infrastructure jobs exist in “operation” than in “construction.”

  • 77 percent of infrastructure workers are involved with operating infrastructure, compared to only 15 percent with construction, meaning that the majority of these workers focus on running facilities and moving supplies, rather than building or installing new structures.
  • Of the 20 largest occupations in infrastructure, 13 are involved in operations. The two largest occupations are movers (freight and stock movers) and truck drivers.
Infrastructure Occupations by Infrastructure Activity

Unsurprisingly, most infrastructure jobs are located in major metro areas.

  • 64 percent of infrastructure workers are employed in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas.
  • New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago—the nation’s three largest labor markets—have more infrastructure workers (1.8 million) than the smallest 55 metropolitan areas combined.
  • Shares of infrastructure employment reveal distinct patterns in labor specialization in major metro areas. Seattle has the most avionics technicians, Richmond has the most nuclear engineers, and Chicago has the most septic tank servicers.
Infrastructure Jobs in the 100 Largest Metro Areas

Workers at low income levels frequently earn more competitive wages in infrastructure jobs.

  • Infrastructure occupations often pay over 30 percent more to workers at lower ends of the income scale than those employed in non-infrastructure occupations.
  • The median wage for infrastructure occupations ($38,480) is also greater than the national median ($34,750).
  • Still, infrastructure workers tend to earn slightly less on average ($19.39 per hour or $40,970 annually) than workers in all occupations nationally ($22.01 and $45,790).
  • While many infrastructure occupations pay less competitive wages to high-income workers at the 75th and 90th percentile, that lower wage dispersion may also indicate more wage certainty due to structured wage practices or unions.
Infrastructure Occupations Across All Industries

Infrastructure jobs typically require less formal education and thus have lower barriers to entry.

  • 67 of the 95 infrastructure occupations only require a high school diploma or less for entry.
  • At the same time, 57 percent of infrastructure workers have a high school diploma or less.
  • More than 80 percent of workers employed in infrastructure occupations typically have short- to long-term on-the-job training.

In the coming decade there will be a lot of job openings in infrastructure as the number of jobs rise and current workers retire.

  • Employment in infrastructure occupations is projected to increase 9.1 percent from 2012 to 2022.
  • An additional 242,000 material movers, 193,000 truck drivers, and 115,000 electricians are among the number of new workers projected to emerge over the next decade.
  • Nearly one quarter of infrastructure workers will need to be replaced as retirements and other employment shifts take place over the coming years.