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Reversing America’s poor track record on inclusivity in infrastructure jobs

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More than a year since the COVID-19 recession began, the economic recovery is gaining momentum. Businesses and schools are reopening. Incomes and consumer spending are up. Households are traveling and getting out more. However, the deep and uneven impacts of the recession still surround us, especially for the millions of workers who remain jobless and left behind.

Leaders in Washington, D.C. and across the country realize the importance of focusing on both the pace and equity of economic recovery. Proposals to boost incomes, build affordable housing, and bridge digital divides are attempting to help more people and places. President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan outline several major steps to support such a recovery—not only focusing on physical infrastructure upgrades to stimulate economic growth, but also emphasizing the importance of training and recruiting infrastructure workers to support a more enduring, equitable 21st century economy.

These generational investments in the nation’s transportation, water, energy, and broadband systems demand a careful look at who will be constructing and operating them for decades to come. From electricians and traffic technicians to civil engineers and water treatment operators, 17 million workers are directly employed in infrastructure. They tend to earn higher wages, require lower levels of formal education, and many are retiring—presenting a huge window of opportunity. Past infrastructure investments have failed to reach workers across all races, genders, and backgrounds; we cannot afford to repeat that mistake in the wake of another recession.

Rather than fixating on “what is infrastructure,” federal policymakers need to focus on ensuring equitable access to opportunities created through an infrastructure stimulus. Ideally, policies can encourage additional training and recruitment among those who have been hit hardest by the recession and could economically benefit most, including women and workers of color.

A lack of inclusion in past federal infrastructure stimulus efforts

A focus on inclusivity in infrastructure jobs would mark a historical turning point for people often excluded from past infrastructure stimulus efforts. One such effort—the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the 1930s and 1940s—is often cited as the most successful infrastructure and jobs initiative in American history; however, not all workers got a fair New Deal.

Throughout the duration of the program, only between 12% and 18% of WPA workers were women, despite accounting for 25% of the civilian labor force. Over 85% of WPA employees were white. And while the WPA stated that individuals with disabilities “were not to be disqualified per se as unemployable,” too few jobs were made available to these workers. Instead, most WPA workers—like most infrastructure workers today—were white and male.

Fig1

WPA employment increased for women and workers of color over time, as white male workers left the WPA rolls for the private sector. While acknowledging labor market discrimination, the WPA perpetuated the practice through its own hiring, claiming in its 1947 final program report that “the proportion of WPA workers who were found qualified for training in the WPA vocation program was much smaller” among Black workers, and that many female workers were “experienced only in domestic work.”

These phrases sound familiar today, with inequitable access to workforce opportunities often framed as a “skills gap.” As our country continues the tradition of infrastructure stimulus, policymakers have an opportunity to address a legacy of racism, sexism, and ableism.

Fig.2

Infrastructure’s lack of gender and racial diversity, by the numbers

Today, an infrastructure stimulus has the potential to connect more and different types of workers to good careers. Infrastructure jobs tend to have lower educational barriers to entry and higher wages, especially for workers just starting out or who are at the lower end of the wage distribution. These workers also gain valuable on-the-job training and develop transferrable skills, leading to long-term career growth. And with nearly half of the current infrastructure workforce over the age of 45—compared to 43% of workers in all jobs nationally—employers will soon be hiring a new generation of talent that may be just launching their careers or shifting from other sectors of the economy.

Despite these broad-based opportunities, the current infrastructure workforce is sorely lacking in gender and racial diversity. While 49% of all workers nationally are women, only 18% of infrastructure workers are women. Moreover, in 20 of the largest infrastructure occupations, less than 5% of workers are women. And much like the economy as a whole, women in infrastructure positions also face a gender wage gap: They earn 91 cents for every dollar male workers make as transportation managers and logisticians, and 88 cents for every dollar as material movers. The relatively smaller pay gaps in civil engineering and similar fields have shown that, in many cases, accessing male-dominated career pathways can facilitate financial stability for women workers; additional research on gender wage gaps has also pointed to the importance of unions, which tend to appear in many infrastructure industries.

Fig 3

Many infrastructure occupations also lack racial diversity, particularly among Black and Latino or Hispanic workers. 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.

Where they do appear, Black and Latino or Hispanic workers tend to fill lower-paying infrastructure occupations. Nine out of the 10 infrastructure occupations employing the highest shares of Latino or Hispanic workers (and seven of the 10 with the highest shares of Black workers) pay below the infrastructure sector’s median hourly wage of $21.47. The career pathways that facilitate access to higher-paying infrastructure occupations need to be more readily accessible to all workers.

Fig4

Empowering a more diverse generation of infrastructure workers

In order to truly “build back better,” federal policymakers need to ensure that a variety of infrastructure career pathways—not just short-term jobs—are accessible to all types of workers. As the Biden administration’s proposals continue to generate debate on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, policymakers have a timely opportunity to help employers, workforce development groups, community organizations, and other leaders expand the reach of infrastructure career pathways for more people in more places. Some ways to do this include:

  • Expose more and different types of individuals to infrastructure careers. Many infrastructure jobs lack visibility among younger students, women, and workers of color, even though they are crucial to managing our climate concerns, promote lifelong learning in a variety of in-demand technical skills, and offer widespread on-the-job training opportunities. For instance, despite similar test scores throughout elementary, middle, and high school, women are 25% as likely as men to enroll in STEM fields of study for college due to a variety of social barriers and internalized bias, and they may not pursue infrastructure-related fields as a result. Demonstrating the value of these careers needs to start earlier and more often while providing experiences that are affirming and validating. Programs such as Girls Build are already doing this important work, and community youth programs from Girl Scouts to 4-H are beginning to integrate affirmative STEM programming into their curricula. A new Civilian Climate Corps could offer opportunity to the next generation of infrastructure workers, but it must center inclusion. Demonstration projects and public outreach by water utilities and other local leaders are also revealing how infrastructure can serve as a shared community asset. 

Federal leaders need to prioritize and expand funding for these types of outreach and training efforts. The American Jobs Plan emphasizes the importance of connecting underrepresented students to STEM and infrastructure occupations through middle- and high-school-level career pathway programs and “partnerships with both institutions of higher education and employers.” Enhancing federal funding and programmatic support for sector partnerships in infrastructure would offer one way to help employers, community partners, and other regional leaders as they coordinate on future plans.

  • Boost flexible work-based learning opportunities. Investments in workforce development programs need to provide more accessible training opportunities for a broader range of workers. That means supporting on-the-job training and applied learning opportunities that may be shorter in duration, convenient to physically reach (via public transportation), and geared toward the needs of nontraditional workers that face other social barriers. Particularly visible over this past year has been the need for caregiving and family leave policies to facilitate equitable career access for women. Work-based learning opportunities such as registered apprenticeships or incumbent worker training are essential to do this, but currently reach less than 1% of Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) adult and dislocated worker trainees. Pre-apprenticeships and internships are also important in supporting these efforts. 

The American Jobs Plan proposes increased investment in the Women in Apprenticeships and Nontraditional Occupations program, through which the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau administers grants to community-based organizations that provide accessible on-ramps to nontraditional careers for women. While the plan also proposes $40 billion toward a “new Dislocated Workers Program and sector-based training,” federal policymakers will need to explicitly center workers of color and women in these programs—working collaboratively with regional leaders to build off emerging plans and initiatives already happening in the infrastructure sector.

  • Make infrastructure workplaces more welcoming spaces. Women working in male-dominated jobs experience more sexual harassment and discrimination than women working in female-dominated jobs, with less access to mentors and other workplace allies. The persistently low share of women and people of color working in the infrastructure sector not only reflects inequitable access to career pathways, but may also result from all those individuals pushed out of workplaces due to harassment and discrimination. 

Strong worker protections are essential to ensure a welcoming workplace for a more diverse range of infrastructure workers. To that end, President Biden has signaled his support of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. Further federal actions should also include the intentional development of ambassadorship programs—such as the Department of Energy’s Equity in Energy Ambassadors and Champions—to welcome underrepresented workers into infrastructure careers. State-level policy can support the development of essential mentorships and other positive relationships with adults through work-based learning as students begin their journey into infrastructure careers. Finally, employers and workforce development intermediaries need to clearly communicate and enforce policies protecting workers from discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation.

The White House says the American Jobs Plan will “ensure that new jobs created in clean energy, manufacturing, and infrastructure are open and accessible to women and people of color.” But addressing the historic inequities of past infrastructure investments will require more than simply making jobs “open and accessible” to these workers now—although it is a start. Future infrastructure investments hold enormous potential in expanding economic growth, but ensuring this growth is equitable and enduring hinges on our ability to learn from the mistakes we’ve made in past infrastructure stimulus efforts.

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