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The Enormous Wage Potential of Infrastructure Jobs

Arizona Department of Transportation workers prepare to close off a section of U.S. Highway 60 due to the Wallow Wildfire in Springerville, Arizona June 8, 2011.

This month marks five years since the U.S. economic recovery began, but we clearly have a long way to go to address our nation’s jobs deficit. Even though more workers are gradually finding employment, their wages continue to stagnate and hold back widespread economic growth. This spring, wages have remained consistently low and increased only 0.2 percent, dragging down consumer spending and adding pressure to an already-strained labor market.

However, the search for more and better jobs is gaining new momentum throughout the country, as several states and metropolitan areas look to revise minimum wage laws in lieu of federal action. Although it will take some time to gauge the full effects of these changes, issues of inequality still loom large nationally, and metropolitan leaders will need to consider a wide range of policy options—and employment opportunities—to address our ongoing workforce needs.

Cutting across multiple industries and geographies, infrastructure jobs offer needed stability. Since these jobs also typically require less formal education and pay competitive wages across a variety of occupations, they give workers from all backgrounds a chance to make a decent living in today’s unforgiving economy.

As our recent report reveals, infrastructure jobs tend to pay 30 percent more to lower income workers—wage earners at the 10th and 25th percentile—relative to all jobs nationally, but the differences are especially striking when looking at specific occupations.

Hourly Wage Comparison, Infrastructure Occupations and Other Selected Occupations, 2012

Source: Brookings analysis of BLS Occupational Employment Statistics and Employment Projections data.
Note that occupational wages are based on cross-industry totals

Infrastructure occupations not only employ thousands of workers with a high school diploma or less, but they also frequently offer higher wages compared to many other jobs, particularly those involved in sales, maintenance, production, and other support activities. For example, paving equipment operators, recyclable material collectors, and industrial truck operators are among the largest infrastructure occupations that fall into this category, paying significantly more to workers without an advanced degree who might otherwise be employed as assemblers, counter attendants or cashiers. Plumbers, bus drivers and electrical power-line installers illustrate these patterns as well.

While infrastructure offers a path to greater equity and opportunity for the U.S. workforce as a whole, several other factors, including relevant skills and experience, can also influence wages for individual workers to a significant degree. On-the-job training, in particular, is essential for these workers, many of who undertake apprenticeships and certifications to operate our infrastructure systems for decades. At the same time, the precise location of these jobs can lead to questions of affordability and accessibility.

Backed by support from public, private and civic partners, though, infrastructure workers are able to strengthen their knowledge and pay at the same time. High levels of union membership among many infrastructure workers, for instance, reflect these overarching priorities. Nationally, nearly 20 percent of workers in transportation and warehousing are union members, in addition to 25 percent in utilities and 16 percent in telecommunications—all significantly higher than the national average (11 percent).

Over time, by forging stronger connections between our infrastructure investments and workforce needs, we can help boost the long-term opportunity available to American workers.  

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