Infrastructure, so long relegated to the background in the worlds of economic policy, urban revitalization, and workforce development, has recently become the center of much more attention. Due to the federal economic stimulus, the growing interest in the green economy, and crises caused by underinvestment in public works, infrastructure has enjoyed a much higher profile of late. Jobs in infrastructure are growing in number and changing in the skills that they require as California strives to develop a more sustainable pattern for development. Energy production and conservation, water, transportation, communications, and other massive systems need to be redesigned, rebuilt, and maintained, and that work will require hundreds of billions of dollars in new investment, constituting a large part of the state’s economy.
Because many of its entry-level positions can be attained with little education, the infrastructure sector is remarkably well suited to moving large numbers of Californians onto career pathways— routes along which they can attain good pay and benefits and get solid returns on their investment in training and education. This is good news for young Californians who are navigating the state’s competitive labor market with less than a high-school diploma and for incumbent workers in related sectors who have been laid off due to the severe economic downturn.
However, getting in the door is not the same as being able to get ahead. Career pathways to good, middle-skill jobs in the infrastructure fields are only open to those who can attain new skills, knowledge, and the related credentials. Community colleges, the state’s largest provider of workforce education and training, can only realize their potential if they are equipped to handle both the technological changes in these industries and the needs of their diverse students. Community colleges are one of the state’s key vehicles for economic mobility and social equity, if and when they can deliver on their promise.
This report examines California’s infrastructure sector and its community colleges to learn what is being done at this time and what will be needed. Through analysis of the labor market, assessment of innovative programs, and consultation with a diverse cross-section of education and labor leaders, we confirmed four key trends.
There is a growing unmet demand for community college–trained and/or state-certified workers in the infrastructure sector.
The five infrastructure subsectors we examined will annually generate more than 36,000 new jobs in the state that require less than a bachelor’s degree. With “baby boomers” preparing to retire over the next decade, the number of job openings in infrastructure is projected to grow at a faster clip than overall population growth. For example, over the next decade, the California electric utilities sector alone is projected to have between 44,000 and 87,400 openings, 85 percent of which will be available to workers with less than a bachelor’s degree.
Emerging infrastructure industries are also growing in employment, but will be less predictable in the short-term. The new interest and investment in the “green economy” is creating rapid growth in different jobs with a wide range of educational and technical entry requirements. Changes in technology and a new focus on ecological sustainability are fundamentally transforming the field of infrastructure—creating new subsectors, refashioning old ones, and bringing typically marginal sectors into the forefront. Many entry-level infrastructure jobs are now “middle-skill.” Areas based on the diffusion of new technology, such as solar energy, or on new government spending commitments, such as home weatherization and energy retrofitting, are very promising for the long term even as they face wide swings in the availability of tax credits, capital, and orders for business in the short-term, whether as part of the recovery effort or in the private market.
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