Watch the event conversation with federal, state, and local leaders discussing investments in the U.S. infrastructure workforce, and read a recent report focused on seizing the U.S. infrastructure opportunity.
- Executive Summary
- The infrastructure workforce and the post-pandemic labor market
- Understanding the infrastructure investment and jobs act
- The workforce development funding opportunities within the IIJA
- How leaders can take advantage of transformative workforce development investments
- Guiding questions for state and local partners involved in infrastructure workforce development
The U.S. currently faces a once-in-a-generation window to invest in infrastructure and expand economic opportunity. With the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) of 2021, the federal government directed unprecedented levels of funding to improve the country’s transportation, water, energy, and broadband systems, in addition to addressing a variety of climate needs. Now, attention shifts to state and local leaders, who hold the most control over how infrastructure projects will ultimately be planned, designed, and implemented.
Senior Fellow - Brookings Metro
Joseph W. Kane
Fellow - Brookings Metro
Research Assistant - Brookings Metro
Fellow - Brookings Metro
Whether they realize it or not, a key task for these leaders is to ensure that when infrastructure jobs open up, there will be workers ready to fill them. The infrastructure field has long faced challenges in finding and retaining workers, and it does not have a strong track record of inclusion and diversity. If state and local leaders act strategically, they can harness IIJA funding to make both short- and long-term investments in the next generation of infrastructure talent. But if leaders and employers continue to treat recruitment, hiring, and training practices as an afterthought, the country will likely miss out on this legislation’s transformative potential to drive inclusive growth, make a just climate transition, and spur innovation and global competitiveness.
The Brookings Federal Infrastructure Hub estimates that the IIJA will fund $864 billion in spending over five years. The law authorizes 400-plus programs across multiple federal agencies that channel funds to various state and local entities, and these programs have varying guidelines, timelines, and eligibility requirements. Congress did not directly channel any IIJA funding into the public workforce development system, nor does the legislation provide much explicit funding dedicated to workforce activities. Rather, workforce activities are allowable or embedded within a subset of the IIJA’s multitude of programs. In practical terms, this makes it more difficult for state and local leaders to clearly identify which federal infrastructure funding is available to support workforce investments—which in turn could make it less likely they will prioritize workforce development and integrate it into infrastructure plans and projects.
The IIJA’s sheer size and complexity pose real challenges around implementation. The state and local leaders making decisions about infrastructure projects and investments are often not familiar with existing education and workforce assets that can support more strategic recruitment, training, and retention activities, while local and state workforce programs may not know how to focus their outreach and partnership efforts. This report attempts to fill these knowledge gaps by equipping state and local leaders with more information and guidance on how to use expanded federal infrastructure funding to invest strategically in workforce development activities. We conducted an extensive analysis of the law and found that:
- Overall, the IIJA offers state and local leaders a high level of discretion on whether and how they incorporate workforce development activities into infrastructure investments. This is both an opportunity and a challenge. It allows for creativity and flexibility to reach more and different types of workers, but also requires leaders to overcome the inertia of status quo practices that do not typically prioritize strategic investments in workforce development.
- Out of the IIJA’s 400-plus programs, we identified 72 that emphasize or allow workforce development, totaling $490 billion. Most of that $490 billion will not go to workforce development activities, but even a small share would be a sizable amount. State and local leaders ultimately have a great deal of control to shape the amount of funding and types of activities that are directed toward workforce development. Only six of the 72 programs (totaling $281 million, or less than 1% of the funding we identified) solely focus on workforce activities such as recruitment and training.
- More than 70% of the funding allowing workforce development activities will flow through the Department of Transportation (DOT). Other agencies that received significant funding for programs that emphasize or allow workforce activities include the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Commerce (DOC), and the Department of Energy (DOE).
- Most of the funding we identified (79%) will go directly to states through formula programs, which means that state agencies such as transportation and energy departments are key actors. Because formula programs represent so much money, they are a major lever to improve recruiting, hiring, and training practices. However, integrating workforce activities into formula programs may be challenging; agencies administering them have well-established processes and priorities in place, and they typically have not considered workforce development a primary consideration. This is especially true for highway formula programs, which include some of the largest pots of money that allow workforce development activities. If governors, mayors, county executives, and agency directors do not provide clear and consistent direction that investing in the infrastructure workforce is a top priority, it is likely to be overlooked.
- A smaller but still sizable share of federal dollars (21%) will be disbursed through competitive programs, in which state and local entities apply for funds based on specific criteria. These offer possibilities for additional collaboration and workforce development activities outside the confines of formula programs. Federal agency officials have much greater leeway to specify requirements and select awards within competitive programs—including the range of eligible state and local entities—compared to the more rigid requirements and narrower list of entities within formula programs.
Building off this analysis, we share a set of action items to guide planning and strategy development. To maximize the IIJA’s impact, state and local leaders must shift from short-term, business-as-usual approaches and instead focus on longer-term strategies to boost inclusive economic development and greater opportunities for workers. Just because the IIJA allows states and local areas the flexibility to invest in workforce development activities does not mean it will be used for that purpose or guarantee better outcomes for workers and employers. This could lead to delays, increased costs, and inequitable employment outcomes down the line. Infrastructure agencies and employers need to collaborate more closely with existing workforce and education partners rather than create new programs from scratch, especially if they want to enhance their capacity in outreach, support services, reskilling, and retention.
Signed into law in November 2021, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) has launched an estimated $864 billion investment in our nation’s infrastructure. Authorized through 2026, the legislation lays out a sweeping vision of how infrastructure investments can improve people’s lives, boost American competitiveness, and spur climate adaptation and resilience. This level of investment hasn’t been seen in a generation, and its transformative potential comes on top of several other major federal investments available through the American Rescue Plan Act, Inflation Reduction Act, and CHIPS and Science Act.
However, two fundamental questions face the state and local leaders who are eligible for this funding and carrying out the work:
- Where will they find all the workers needed to construct, operate, and maintain these systems, both now and in years to come?
- How can leaders navigate all this federal funding to hire, train, and retain more and different types of workers, rather than relying on traditional strategies that have fallen short?
The IIJA offers expansive flexibility to hire, train, and retain workers in executing infrastructure projects, and there is no single program that explicitly focuses on workforce development. Instead, the onus is on state and local leaders to understand where this funding is available and harness it for these purposes. The law is much more explicit about capital projects and physical operations than it is about developing the workers necessary to carry out those projects.
A look at the IIJA’s legislative history reveals why. The Biden administration’s first proposal, the American Jobs Plan, combined infrastructure investments with a host of other provisions, including education and training. Subsequently, the infrastructure investments in roads, bridges, broadband, and so on were transferred into separate legislation (what became the IIJA), while education, training, and other provisions became part of the Build Back Better framework, which Congress never passed.
The need to develop and retain infrastructure workers, however, remains acute. “Business-as-usual” ways of hiring and managing workers in infrastructure—with a heavy reliance on just-in-time hiring and internal networks—are not going to cut it in post-pandemic labor markets with low unemployment, high retirement rates, and declining labor force participation. Projects are likely to face delays, quality control problems, or cost overruns if we don’t broaden and strengthen pathways into infrastructure careers.
Based upon a close review of the IIJA and related documents, this report aims to equip state and local leaders with more clarity on how to make use of new federal infrastructure funding to strategically invest in workforce development activities. To do so, the report first defines the existing infrastructure workforce and its challenges, then describes how IIJA programs can support outreach, recruitment, and training activities. Finally, we explore major considerations for state and local leaders as they seek to maximize the reach of this funding.
The Infrastructure workforce and the post-pandemic labor market
Past and ongoing Brookings research has documented the importance of the infrastructure workforce to the American economy, as well as the diversity of infrastructure jobs and skill sets. In 2021, 16.6 million workers were directly employed in infrastructure jobs—filling more than 90 occupations and accounting for 12% of national employment. The most common occupations include electricians, plumbers, civil engineers, and other skilled trades positions, particularly those involved in the transportation and energy sectors. But many workers are also involved in administrative, financial, and managerial roles at warehouses, utilities, and engineering firms. Most infrastructure workers are involved with operating and maintaining physical assets rather than constructing or installing them.
Infrastructure jobs tend to pay more equitable wages, including up to 30% higher pay for those at the lower end of the earnings scale. These jobs also tend to have lower barriers to entry for people who do not have a college degree. Due to high unionization rates and other industry norms in transportation and utilities, infrastructure jobs generally can offer long-term pathways to economic security in an era of stagnating wages and an economy with an overabundance of low-wage jobs. Whether employed as technicians, operators, or engineers, infrastructure workers frequently learn on-the-job through apprenticeships or employer-provided training—making these jobs a source of paid learning opportunities rather than the alternative of earning a college degree and accruing student debt.
But struggles to find and retain talent represent a huge challenge in the infrastructure sector. IIJA infrastructure funding will be hitting the streets at a time of very low unemployment (3.5% as of December 2022) and in the context of long-term declines in labor force participation. COVID-19 has left the U.S. with an unsettled labor market. Labor force participation has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, and employer demand remains strong relative to labor supply—creating a labor market that is simultaneously hot but also smaller than it was three years ago. Notably, COVID-19 sparked an estimated 2.4 million excess retirements, as baby boomers rapidly left the labor force. Likewise, COVID-19 immigration restrictions led to an estimated 2 million fewer immigrants in the workforce. In this landscape, employers are likely to struggle to recruit and retain infrastructure workers, which could lead to cost overruns and delays—potentially shrinking the scope and impact of infrastructure investments.
Long-term demographic shifts will exacerbate these challenges. The U.S. has a declining under-age-18 population, both in absolute numbers and as a share of the total population. Young Americans are also more racially and ethnically diverse than previous generations. People of color account for more than half of the under-18 population, which represents the nation’s future talent pool. Employers that are not able to attract and retain a younger, more diverse population of workers will struggle to stay competitive.
But even before the pandemic and the IIJA’s passage, the country’s infrastructure employers were struggling to fill jobs, particularly given the aging workforce shifting toward retirement and a weak pipeline for recruiting new workers after decades of underinvestment in hands-on, work-based training. Recent Brookings research shows that 1.7 million infrastructure workers will need to be replaced each year on average over the next decade due to retirements and other employment shifts; in other words, the whole workforce will effectively turn over. Employers need to invest in managerial and supervisory training to replace staff who are retiring, and the field badly needs to attract and retain younger workers, as infrastructure careers often lack visibility among young people and prospective workers.
In addition to skewing older, the current infrastructure workforce is predominantly white and male. Women account for only 18% of all infrastructure jobs (compared to 49% of all jobs), and Black and Latino or Hispanic workers are also underrepresented. For instance, more than three-quarters of highway maintenance workers, electrical power line installers, and power plant operators are white. This is also true among higher-paying occupations such as commercial pilots, hydrologists, and nuclear engineers. To grow the infrastructure workforce, employers, unions, and other leaders must proactively address the racism and sexism that have made infrastructure jobs and advancement opportunities challenging and, at times, openly hostile to women and people of color.
Understanding the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act
The IIJA is not just another roads and bridges bill—it represents a cross-sectoral, 21st century approach that invests in a broad scope of projects and, potentially, a broad group of workers. As our colleague Adie Tomer has emphasized, the IIJA’s sweeping vision has the potential to touch many workers beyond short-term construction, as the country looks to better maintain and retrofit aging facilities and carry out an array of operations such as shipping goods, pumping and treating water, capturing and distributing energy, laying broadband, and more. This funding has already started flowing to state and local governments and will continue to do so through 2026.
To promote more awareness and transparency of what is in the IIJA, Brookings Metro created the Federal Infrastructure Hub, which includes a comprehensive and interactive database of IIJA programming, our published writing and event discussions, and links to key external resources.
Based on data in the Federal Infrastructure Hub, more than two-thirds of IIJA funding ($591 billion) supports transportation programs. However, the law is so comprehensive and large that there is still significant funding for other priorities, such as energy ($98 billion), broadband ($64 billion), and water ($57 billion). In most cases, the entities eligible to receive and manage IIJA funding are state highway and energy departments, water utilities, and metropolitan planning organizations (regional organizations that manage and implement federal transportation funds).
The workforce development funding opportunities within the IIJA
The IIJA offers expansive opportunities to integrate robust workforce development strategies into infrastructure plans and projects. But that won’t happen unless state and local leaders make it a priority.
That’s because the IIJA focuses more on capital projects and physical operations and less on who will do the work. Although the bill mentions workforce development and allows funds to be used for this purpose, few individual programs require workforce programming. Nor does the law directly increase funding for (or require partnerships with) the publicly funded workforce development system, such as the local American Job Centers operated through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.
There is no simple answer to the question, “How much money is available through the IIJA for workforce development?” State and local leaders—mostly those leading state infrastructure agencies—will determine the dollar amounts and activities that support stronger and more inclusive recruitment, training, and hiring strategies as they develop and carry out infrastructure projects. These workforce activities, in turn, should be driven by leaders’ assessment of how to develop and retain the labor force to successfully execute on their projects.
For its part, the Biden Administration has ramped up efforts to provide information and guidance, while also expressing a commitment to job quality and equity in IIJA implementation. The White House has held events, shared information, and supported initiatives linking employers with education and training providers. Multiple agencies have also provided guidance, including the Department of Labor (DOL), the Department of Commerce (DOC), and the Department of Transportation (DOT, see here and here).
But the IIJA’s sheer size and complexity continue to pose real barriers to state and local leaders, both in infrastructure investment and workforce development. For example, many leaders find it overwhelming to identify which federal agencies are releasing funds, in what amounts, for what time frame, with what eligibility requirements, and through which access channels.
Based upon a close review of the IIJA and related documents, this report aims to equip state and local leaders with guidance on how to make use of expanded federal infrastructure funding to invest strategically and effectively in workforce development activities. We specifically identified which programs either emphasize or allow workforce development activities, such as training and community outreach for recruitment. A detailed methodology is available in a downloadable appendix.
The key findings are:
Within the IIJA, 72 programs—totaling $490 billion—emphasize or allow some type of workforce development activity. Most of these dollars will go directly toward project costs, but if used wisely, even a small share directed toward workforce development can have big impacts: strengthening pathways into infrastructure careers, supporting advancement opportunities for incumbent workers, and cultivating a younger, more diverse workforce.
Eligible workforce development activities under the IIJA include career and technical education, on-the-job training, apprenticeships, and skills development more generally. The 72 programs we identified as emphasizing or allowing workforce development account for almost 20% of the IIJA’s 400-plus programs, but because some of the individual programs are funded at such a high level, the dollar amount represents a little more than half (57%) of the $863 billion in total funding, based on Brookings Federal Infrastructure Hub analysis.
Programs span multiple federal agencies; the highest number of programs appear in the DOT (25) and DOE (21). DOT accounts for the most IIJA funding overall, and correspondingly, it also accounts for the most funding emphasizing or allowing workforce development ($352 billion, or 72%). Still, there are sizable amounts totaling tens of billions of dollars in agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Commerce (DOC).
The vast majority of the dollars emphasizing or allowing workforce development comes via formula programs. These 37 programs total $385 billion, representing 79% of the $490 billion that we identified. Again, most of these dollars will go directly toward infrastructure project expenses, but even a small portion used to integrate workforce development efforts into specific projects would represent a substantial investment.
Formula programs allocate federal funds to designated state and local governments based on pre-existing formulas, such as population levels or roadway miles, and legislation sets the specific purposes for the dollars. For example, funding for highway formula programs is channeled through state transportation departments. These programs often have well-established processes and priorities, including identifying costs and selecting projects as part of annual capital budgeting. Because of the size and prevalence of formula programs (they account for 90% of all federal highway assistance, for example), they often have a large impact on state and local projects, which makes them key levers for workforce development. But because formula programs have not historically prioritized workforce development, agency leaders and staff are unlikely to be familiar with entities such as workforce development boards, community colleges, nonprofit training programs, and the local landscape of education and training programs.
The DOT will administer many of the largest formula programs in IIJA: the National Highway Performance Program ($148 billion, the largest overall by far); the Surface Transportation Block Grant ($65 billion); the Urbanized Area Formula Grants for transit ($33.5 billion); and the Highway Safety Improvement Program ($15.6 billion). Other large formula programs include broadband deployment from the DOC ($43 billion) and the Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Funds from the EPA ($31 billion when bundling three sub-programs together).
There are 35 competitive programs (totaling $105 billion) that emphasize or allow workforce development activities. With competitive programs, federal agency officials have more freedom than in formula programs to design program requirements and goals and select grant recipients based on whether proposals meet the stated criteria. A range of state and local entities can apply (unlike formula programs, which go to predetermined entities), allowing for broader coalitions and new partnerships. Although competitive funding tends to be smaller in scale than formula funding, it can still support large investments and offer transformative opportunities not possible within the confines of formula funds. They can jump-start innovation, experimentation, and modernization, as evident in DOT’s TIGER grants (Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery) stemming from the 2009 stimulus bill.
However, competitive programs have a few potential downsides. They can duplicate efforts if applicants fail to leverage existing assets. And if they don’t bring in the right partners, applicants may invest in programs and approaches with no track record of success. Measurement and evaluation can be challenging for time-limited programs, as the impacts of these programs can take many years to fully implement and meaningfully assess. And of course, the time-limited nature of competitive programs raises the issue of sustainability once authorizations expire.
Competitive funding opportunities make up about half (49%) of the programs emphasizing or allowing workforce development, but only 21% of the funds we identified. Still, that represents more than $100 billion. Competitive grants from DOT include $36 billion for Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail (to construct new intercity passenger rail routes and address maintenance backlogs), $7.5 billion for the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) Grants (which invest in roads, transit, and ports projects with local and regional significance), $7.3 billion for INFRA Grants (for multimodal freight and highway projects with national or regional significance), and $5.6 billion for Low- and No-Emission buses (to invest in more energy-efficient bus fleets and facilities). DOT has highlighted both RAISE and INFRA awardees that invest in infrastructure workforce development activities, signaling their support for this approach. Other competitive grants include $3 billion for battery manufacturing and recycling grants from DOE and $5 billion for the clean school bus grants from the EPA. These programs have already started awarding grants and will continue to do so annually through the remainder of the IIJA’s authorization (until 2026).
Nearly half (34) of the 72 programs emphasizing or allowing workforce development activities are new, but they have less funding overall ($88 billion). For instance, DOE has a new Energy Auditor Training Grant Program, while DOT’s Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART) Grant Program aims to “support a strong, diverse, and local workforce.” The remaining 38 programs (totaling $402 billion) existed before the IIJA became law, but may now have additional funding or an additional emphasis on workforce development. These range from the EPA’s water infrastructure and workforce investment program to the Appalachian Regional Commission’s broader economic development efforts.
State and local leaders are accustomed to how existing programs operate in terms of planning, project selection, and more, and because the IIJA emphasizes existing programs, there may be a tendency for these leaders to fall back on “business-as-usual” practices. They may rely on standard approaches to securing funding for one-off projects rather than rethinking the types of projects they pursue, the partners they collaborate with, and the specific populations of workers they will need to hire and promote for long-term success. Complying with federal grant requirements can be time-consuming and involves many regulatory approvals—as is the case in federal transit programs, for instance. It will take strong leadership from governors, mayors, and agency directors to overcome the inertia of doing things the way they have always been done, just with more money.
How leaders can take advantage of transformative workforce development investments
State and local leaders are pivotal actors in achieving the IIJA’s goals. And key to achieving those goals is making both short- and long-term investments in the next generation of infrastructure talent. If leaders and employers treat recruitment, hiring, and training practices as an afterthought, we will likely miss out on the transformative potential of this legislation.
Below, we describe key considerations for infrastructure and workforce entities and lay out a series of questions to guide planning and strategy development.
Considerations for infrastructure entities
As state and local infrastructure entities apply for and receive federal funding, the temptation will be to focus on immediate projects with immediate hiring needs. But maximizing this funding requires more intentional planning and execution, with a clearer focus on workforce development needs over the next several months and years.
Transportation departments, utilities, and other direct recipients of IIJA funding should do the following:
- Plan ahead over longer time horizons to identify which roles and skills will be the most challenging to fill, who to target to fill them, and what partners could help build a stable talent pipeline with those target populations. This will likely take additional pressure from governors and their teams to get infrastructure entities—particularly state transportation departments—to think beyond just the immediate projects.
- Consider leveraging existing assets, programs, and services—including adjustments to existing HR practices, contracting, and procurement strategies—before creating new programs or services from scratch, as this can be time-consuming and resource-intensive and may duplicate what is already available
- Prioritize early outreach and engagement beyond the typical recruitment pool to reach those who may not normally have considered infrastructure careers. Focus on making infrastructure and climate-related careers more attractive to specific groups of prospective workers, including people who employers have struggled to reach in the past. Engage entities who may not typically be at the planning table, such as agencies that work with justice-involved individuals and youth, or those that can provide supportive services such as child care, emergency funds, and housing assistance. This should involve input from state infrastructure coordinators, who are appointed as part of the IIJA implementation process.
- Plan for the compliance and administrative due diligence that will be required to implement workforce-related federal grants, including additional capacity and expertise that may be necessary to successfully apply for and execute on grant commitments (e.g., grant writing, legal expertise, and administrative systems for oversight, verification, and performance).
Considerations for workforce entities
Although state and local workforce entities will not receive direct federal funding through IIJA, they still need to be actively engaged on related education, training, and workforce concerns. Workforce entities must communicate the urgency of expanding the infrastructure talent pool to infrastructure entities and their capacity to assist in that endeavor. Notably, their role should extend beyond working on a one-off basis with a single employer or project. Local workforce development boards, labor unions, education and training providers, apprenticeship intermediaries, and other actors should do the following:
- Take steps to understand the challenges that infrastructure employers and workers face. Is the lack of transportation making workers miss work? Are irregular work schedules making it difficult for workers to maintain their family responsibilities? Do training programs have outdated equipment and are they failing to update their curricula? State and local workforce entities (including training providers) should communicate a clear value proposition: how they can help infrastructure agencies and employers address their workforce challenges.
- Collaborate with key regional stakeholders to pursue competitive funding opportunities that are aligned with regional priorities and needs. To increase chances of success, identify regional priorities that align with the federal rules and stated priorities for each grant (e.g., equity goals, climate vulnerability, opportunities for economic competitiveness).
- Support regional collaboration by bringing multiple jurisdictions together, discussing workforce priorities, and pooling funding to provide additional technical and programmatic capacity around these issues. For instance, nonprofit associations could provide a table for discussion and support a grant writer that can help multiple jurisdictions apply for workforce-related federal funding.
Guiding questions for state and local partners involved in infrastructure workforce development
Individually, infrastructure and workforce leaders can only achieve so much. Below is a set of questions for infrastructure and workforce leaders working together to ask themselves in order to support better planning and collaboration efforts. Different leaders and partners may need to focus on some of these questions more than others.
What are the infrastructure needs, ongoing projects, and future priorities in my state or region?
State and local leaders should take both short- and long-term considerations into account. In the short term, they should examine workforce needs across existing and planned infrastructure projects (if they haven’t already) to identify overarching patterns. Even if a project has been awarded funding or already started, there is probably sufficient time to integrate workforce activities into the overall project plan.
In the long term, state and local leaders should assess the strategic priorities and opportunities in their region for leveraging infrastructure and talent investments to reinvigorate regions and downtowns. For example, they can scan city plans and hold consultations with public officials, workforce boards, industry associations, and community groups to inform strategic areas of focus, such as how trends in manufacturing re-shoring, climate adaptation, self-driving vehicles, or commuting patterns are likely to impact infrastructure and talent needs over the next 20 to 30 years.
What occupations are likely to become more in-demand due to the infrastructure projects identified above, and what is the capacity of the state and region to develop workers for those occupations?
State and local leaders—particularly staff within infrastructure employers such as transportation departments—need to better assess their mission critical occupations. For instance, state transportation departments already conduct annual workforce assessments as part of their capital programs, but they may struggle with addressing operational positions over time. That includes measuring hiring and training gaps over different time horizons (e.g., position needs in the next six months versus the next five years), evaluating diversity and inclusion in hiring and retention outcomes, and collecting better data about how to effectively attract and retain prospective workers in coordination with local workforce agencies and community-based organizations.
Doing so can help these leaders prioritize and budget for investments that are needed in the short and long term. That includes assessing current workforce programming capacity before launching new projects to avoid duplication. Some of this can be done internally, including through dedicated HR staff and analysts focused on data collection and measurement needs, which are only getting more important as new digital technologies come online. But many local infrastructure entities may not have the capacity to lead this work. Regional workforce and employer coalitions, such as the San Francisco Bay Area’s BAYWORK, have been able to boost capacity in these situations by aggregating data, pooling resources, and sharing technical guidance among water utilities. Such efforts offer a strong precedent for other regions.
How do we develop and retain workers for current and future infrastructure projects in my state or region?
State and local leaders will make better use of their resources if they are clear about how they will leverage existing workforce development program capacity rather than reinventing the wheel. This is why answering the question above about in-demand occupations is so critical before jumping into program development. Key elements of a comprehensive strategy are:
- Career awareness, outreach, and work-based learning for teens, young adults, and adults making career transitions. The Department of Labor has issued guidance to state and local workforce leaders on this.
- Earn-and-learn strategies such as apprenticeships and employer-provided training. These are critical not just in the skilled trades, but also for office and tech roles such as project management.
- Skills-based hiring and recruitment practices among employers. This involves reviewing and updating job descriptions to accurately reflect job tasks and associated skills. Employers can assess these skills various ways, and should not automatically default to college degrees as a hiring requirement.
- Paid sick leave, flexible scheduling, a safe and welcoming workplace culture, anti-discrimination policies, and other workplace practices that support the retention of women, parents of young children, and Black and Latino or Hispanic workers.
- Partnerships with community-based organizations, service providers, and education and training organizations to improve outreach and recruitment and provide family-centered services such as transportation and child care to increase retention.
- Updated education and training curricula to keep pace with new technologies and approaches, such as updating auto mechanic training to include more focus on electric vehicle maintenance and similar changes in response to climate change.
Who needs to be involved in developing and implementing stronger on-ramps into infrastructure jobs and building career pathways?
Listed below are the groups that need to work together in a more strategic and coordinated way than they have in the past, and how they can do this:
- Employers must act as co-investors in talent pipelines and career pathways, engaging early in the process to create more awareness and easier access into a range of infrastructure jobs and training opportunities.
- Agencies receiving IIJA money need to balance short-term project implementation with the development of longer-term workforce planning and partnerships.
- Education and workforce entities such as workforce development boards and community colleges need to communicate to infrastructure agencies and employers that they can be valuable partners in developing infrastructure workers for current and future projects. Community groups, re-entry organizations, and youth development organizations can bring strong community ties as well as culturally appropriate services and supports.
- Infrastructure leaders should intentionally re-evaluate vendor lists and procurement practices on a regular basis to ensure that local women-, minority-, and veteran-owned businesses are well positioned to compete for contracts and procurement opportunities.
- Labor unions can support efforts to expand outreach and career awareness to communities and workers who have historically been underrepresented in infrastructure jobs and apprenticeships. They can also help ensure that apprenticeship training and mentoring opportunities are evaluated for their effectiveness in supporting talent from diverse backgrounds.
Which groups of workers and potential workers should we prioritize engaging? And what is a targeted strategy to engage them?
Given the tight labor market and retirement trends, state and local leaders and employers will need to be intentional about targeting their recruitment and retention outreach and offers to specific communities of workers to ensure that these jobs are attractive and feasible for talent to pursue. In addition, state and local leaders should consider vehicles such as project labor agreements, community benefit agreements, and local hiring preferences to ensure that local communities benefit from investments in infrastructure. Suggested populations of workers to focus on include:
- Women and people of color
- Local workers and contractors
- High school and college students
- Young adults, including those employed in low-wage jobs, gig work, and those who are not participating in the labor force
- Justice-involved youth and adults
- Veterans and their spouses
- Incumbent infrastructure workers who could further develop their skill sets and/or advance to positions of higher responsibility
The IIJA programs that emphasize or allow workforce development activities span multiple federal agencies and implicate an array of federal, state, and local actors. As this analysis reveals, the law provides state and local leaders with tremendous opportunities to address hiring, training, and retention challenges across the infrastructure sector. However, just because eligible state and local entities can invest in workforce development does not mean they will.
It is therefore critical that employers, infrastructure agencies, and workforce leaders break out of the “business-as-usual” practices currently governing project management and how workers are recruited, trained, hired, and promoted. If they do not, the consequences will become very clear—and very negative—in coming years. Projects will flounder or face cost overruns due to recruitment and retention problems, local talent will continue to struggle to find accessible pathways into infrastructure jobs, and the nation will be less likely to have essential public goods such as affordable internet access, clean water, and safe, efficient, environmentally friendly transportation options.
However, proactively identifying and using new federal infrastructure funding to address these workforce gaps can help accelerate projects, connect more people to economic opportunity, and seize a once-in-a-generation chance to drive greater innovation and equity across the country.
Brookings Metro would like to thank the Markle Foundation and the Strada Education Network for their generous support of this analysis. For supporting this work and our infrastructure work more broadly, Brookings Metro is also grateful to the Kresge Foundation, Joyce Foundation, Kauffman Foundation, the Irvine Foundation, and the Metro Council, a network of business, civic, and philanthropic leaders that act as financial and intellectual partners of the program.
The authors also thank the following colleagues for providing insights and critiques on early versions of the analysis and report: Alan Berube, Caroline George, Robert Puentes, and Adie Tomer.
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