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Expanding Opportunity Through Infrastructure Jobs

Posted by Content Coordinator on Wednesday, May 13th, 2015


In the face of dour news about stagnant wages, rising inequality, and a vanishing middle class, metropolitan areas are raising local minimum wages, experimenting with new apprenticeship programs, and considering a range of other development tools to tackle their workforce challenges. Collectively, these strategies represent crucial steps to boost incomes and improve economic mobility during the recovery. In the same way, infrastructure investment is supporting more and better jobs throughout the country, drawing from a variety of efforts across the public and private sector.

However, the federal transportation program is headed toward another financial cliff, and Washington is once again scrambling to find a patchwork solution for the crumbling roads, bridges, and facilities whose maintenance is central to economic growth. An oft-cited statistic, for instance, notes that every $1 billion in highway spending can directly and indirectly create up to 13,000 jobs a year. With continued uncertainty at the federal level, many states and localities are delaying construction projects and remain trapped in a cycle of deferred maintenance that hurts thousands of employers and workers alike.

The need to invest in U.S. infrastructure has never been clearer, making it all the more critical to take a fresh look at infrastructure’s importance to the labor market, both to drive long-lasting growth and to expand economic opportunity across the entire workforce—two elements often missing from the current narrative on infrastructure and jobs.

First, infrastructure is not limited to short-term construction. Beyond “shovel-ready” projects, millions of workers are critical to providing timely transportation, reliable water, efficient energy, and other public services over several decades. Engaged in the construction, operation, governance, and design of infrastructure, these workers—from bus drivers and civil engineers to air traffic controllers and telecommunication line installers—play a key role supporting the economy across every region.

Second, infrastructure jobs usually represent long-term, well-paid opportunities for the two-thirds of U.S. workers who lack four-year college degrees. These jobs not only boast competitive wages and have relatively low barriers to entry, but they also have enormous replacement needs, primarily due to an impending wave of retirements. In turn, infrastructure has the potential to promote more durable and equitable growth as the labor market picks up steam following the Great Recession.

Using occupational data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, this report provides an update to last year’s analysis measuring the extent and impact of infrastructure jobs. It focuses on national and metropolitan levels of infrastructure employment in 2013, in addition to post-recession employment changes since 2010. The report also explores infrastructure wages in greater depth from 2003 to 2013 to highlight trends in pay, especially for workers at lower ends of the income distribution, i.e., at the 10th and 25th percentile of all wage earners. The report finds that:

1. In 2013, nearly 14.5 million workers—11 percent of the U.S. workforce— were employed in infrastructure jobs, many of which have relatively low barriers to entry.

2. From 2010 to 2013, infrastructure employment jumped 5 percent, exceeding the national average (4.3 percent) across all occupations while expanding opportunities to workers with less formal education.

3. Infrastructure occupations often provide more competitive and equitable wages compared to all jobs nationally, consistently paying up to 30 percent more to low-income workers over the past decade.

Further information on infrastructure job classifications and methods is available in a downloadable appendix.

In 2013, nearly 14.5 million workers11 percent of the U.S. workforce were employed in infrastructure jobs, many of which have relatively low barriers to entry.

Nationally, 14.5 million workers are employed in infrastructure jobs, most of which are concentrated in 95 different occupations, ranging from material movers and truck drivers to electricians and water treatment plant operators. In turn, workers in these occupations are engaged in a variety of industrial activities that transport passengers, move goods, produce energy, distribute water, and transmit information, which underscore their sizable economic importance across the public and private sector. For example, more workers are employed in infrastructure than are employed in education (12.7 million), manufacturing (12.0 million), and professional-scientific-technical services (8.0 million).

Figure 1: Total Employment, By Selected Industry Sectors, 2013

View full version ( Expanding Opportunity Through Infrastructure Jobs

About the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program
The Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings is redefining the challenges facing metropolitan America and identifying assets and promoting innovative solutions to help communities grow in more productive, inclusive, and sustainable ways.

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