During the Great Recession, there was a push by the Obama administration to use economic stimulus funds to pay for “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects. The construction industry had lost more jobs that any other sector of the economy, and infrastructure spending became almost synonymous with immediate – albeit temporary – job creation.
There is no shortage of advocates for more significant infrastructure spending. President Obama has cited the country’s deteriorating roads and airports as a major national concern, and his worries are backed up by the American Society of Civil Engineers and other professional organizations. But the money involved has made a Congress that has regularly ground to a halt over fiscal matters in recent years, reluctant to undertake serious investment in it.
A new study released Friday by the Brookings Institution, however, takes a rigorous look at the relationship between U.S. infrastructure and employment, and finds that a large majority of the jobs created or preserved by infrastructure projects tend to be long-term, well-paid positions, many of which are available to workers with little formal education.
Authors Joseph Kane and Robert Puentes write, “As policymakers continue to direct attention to infrastructure, they do not always identify the exact types of jobs supported by these investments. By limiting infrastructure employment to construction alone, and viewing it largely in terms of stimulus spending, policymakers have not considered the breadth of infrastructure jobs found across the U.S. economy.”
By classifying infrastructure into seven major categories (intra-metro transportation, inter-metro transportation, trade and logistics, energy, water, telecommunications, and public works) the authors identified 95 different lines of work closely associated with infrastructure, most of them non-construction positions.
“Contrary to popular belief, most workers employed in infrastructure jobs tend to operate physical assets, rather than constructing or installing them,” they write. “Across all infrastructure occupations, 77 percent of workers are primarily concerned with operation versus 15 percent with construction, 6 percent with design, and fewer than 2 percent with governance.”
To be clear, not all infrastructure-related jobs are government jobs. In fact, the study finds that “infrastructure employment spans across a variety of public and private sectors—from pipelines and railroads to warehouses and utilities—containing an array of jobs that pay competitive wages, have low barriers of entry, and are expected to grow in years to come.”
Those last points are particularly significant, given the still-high unemployment rate in the U.S. Some 80 percent of infrastructure jobs, the authors found, require workers to undergo short-or long-term on-the-job training, but only 12 percent require a college degree.
Additionally, they found, for workers at the lower end of the wage spectrum – specifically the bottom 60 percent of earners – those employed in infrastructure-related jobs earned more than 30 percent more than similarly situated workers in other fields.
Kane and Puentes say that their study should be viewed as a first step in reassessing how policymakers consider the benefits of infrastructure spending in the U.S.
“Policymakers have often framed stimulus spending on infrastructure as a way to address these kinds of losses by promoting short-term job creation, assisting state and local governments, and providing much-needed investments in a range of projects,” they write.
“Although construction workers play a pivotal role building and maintaining infrastructure, this report shows they only compose a fraction of the entire workforce responsible for managing the nation’s physical assets. To help promote additional trade, move more passengers, ensure the efficient use of energy and water, and carry out other infrastructure-related activities, it is essential to gain a firmer understanding of the employment opportunities behind these investments.”
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