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Recognizing infrastructure’s role as a local economic anchor

Infrastructure investments facilitate more shipments of export cargo and import cargo in international trade.

Recognizing infrastructure’s role as a local economic anchor

In the race to grow their economies and create new jobs, localities frequently look far beyond their borders. Too often, they try to lure new firms through costly incentives and subsidies with questionable economic returns, a trend that is only gaining more national spotlight during the search for Amazon’s second headquarters. But looking closer to home in support of their core industries and employment opportunities could more directly build off localities’ existing economic strengths.

Investing in infrastructure is foundational to these efforts. Not only does infrastructure serve as a platform to support industries and broader regional growth, but it can also be a driver of more equitable and enduring growth for individuals.

After all, constructing and maintaining reliable roads, ports, pipes, and other systems is essential to all types of businesses and households. Whether moving passengers and goods or ensuring that water, electricity, and broadband is available to everyone, both the public and private sector have a shared responsibility to oversee these various systems. Yet even beyond this supportive role, many local leaders overlook another significant opportunity: Infrastructure can also represent a key economic anchor.

For instance, the major facilities that utilities and transit agencies oversee serve as major public assets, but they also carry out many public responsibilities in their local communities—while employing millions of workers—which should warrant additional attention and investment. Since many of these jobs require less formal education and equip workers with applied experience and in-demand skills, they offer accessible, durable career growth in every community across the country. Think about all the jobs in water treatment plants, power plants, seaports, airports, and other infrastructure establishments nationally, found in large cities and rural areas alike.

As our recent report on the U.S. water infrastructure workforce shows, water utilities embody these anchor-like roles. They act as a key hubs for jobs, training, and environmental stewardship at a local and regional level. On the lookout for a new generation of workers to construct, operate, and maintain pipes, plants, and numerous other water systems, utilities offer long-term, well-paid positions for workers across all skill levels. And the fact that they do so in some of the most disadvantaged areas nationally speaks to their unique role in expanding economic opportunity in their backyard.

At a time when utilities are looking to drive additional infrastructure improvements and hire more workers, there are many potential candidates looking for work who could fill these positions, essentially waiting at the door.

Looking at the locations of the country’s publicly owned water treatment plants—alongside the characteristics of the neighboring populations served—sheds more light on this dynamic. By analyzing spatial data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Facility Registry Service and the American Community Survey, it is possible to see how demographics, educational attainment, unemployment, and poverty rates vary in tracts with water treatment plants.  Although these characteristics can differ markedly from place to place, one takeaway becomes clear: Many utilities concentrate operations in areas where residents experience higher unemployment and higher poverty.

As just one example, consider Louisville, Kentucky, which is aiming to improve its water infrastructure and connect local residents with careers in this space. Overseen by the Louisville and Jefferson County Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD), the Morris Forman Water Quality Treatment Center is the state’s largest water treatment plant, squarely located in an area where residents face significant economic shortfalls. In 2016, the unemployment rate stood at almost 10 percent for nearby workers, and the poverty rate stood at 29 percent—more than double the 4.5 percent unemployment rate and 14 percent poverty rate seen nationally. Furthermore, 54 percent of nearby workers only had a high school diploma or less, compared to 32.5 percent of all workers nationally.

In other words, at a time when utilities are looking to drive additional infrastructure improvements and hire more workers, there are many potential candidates looking for work who could fill these positions, essentially waiting at the door.

Every local infrastructure anchor needs a skilled workforce to construct, design, and oversee a variety of facilities in years to come, which ideally could connect to a local pool of labor: transit agencies in need of operators, energy utilities in need of technicians, and ports in need of warehousing and logistics workers. While many of these positions are concentrated in the skilled trades, several others are involved in technical and administrative support, speaking to the breadth of opportunities available to workers, who have millions of shoes to fill in an aging workforce eligible for retirement.

In the biggest markets like Los Angeles, for instance, infrastructure represents a key anchor in many ways. Large facilities like the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant not only provide an essential service for the region, but also serve as a magnet for jobs. Los Angeles International Airport and the Port of Los Angeles are perhaps two of the region’s most significant anchors, driving a variety of economic activities, employing thousands of workers, and powering future growth—in close proximity to areas where poverty remains a thorny challenge.

Of course, that does not mean it is always to easy hire, train, and retain workers for these jobs, let alone for long-term careers. A lack of visibility and interest in career and technical education has eroded the pipeline of workers entering the infrastructure space, and even when these candidates gain needed skills and competencies, they can struggle to navigate an inflexible, time-consuming hiring process. The demand for on-the-job training and applied work experience can also act as a barrier to entry, especially for younger and other nontraditional jobseekers—including disconnected youth, the out-of-work, and individuals with a criminal past—who may struggle to find (or qualify for) internships and entry-level positions. Finally, the lack of portable credentials and certifications may limit the mobility of existing workers to fill positions across different regions.

These and other related challenges, though, should prompt local leaders to re-energize and refocus their infrastructure workforce development efforts, ideally in closer collaboration with the major infrastructure employers in their markets. Introducing students and other prospective workers to infrastructure careers earlier and more often would help—through internships and local demonstration projects, for instance—as would creating more flexible training programs and ongoing learning opportunities for workers looking to gain more experience.

Traditionally, many infrastructure employers have shied away from the spotlight, opting to carry out their operations discreetly and avoiding any unneeded attention from regulators and other public officials. But the time is ripe for these employers to actively partner with local political leadership, workforce organizations, educational institutions, labor groups, and other actors to heighten their central economic role and ultimately stretch their economic reach.

Joseph Kane is senior research associate and associate fellow at Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program. This article originally appeared here.

US companies with shipments of export cargo and import cargo in international trade need better infrastructure.

Trump’s Infrastructure Plan Puts Workers at the Bottom

Less than two weeks after President Trump’s State of the Union in which he declared that “American heart, American hands, and American grit” would rebuild the country’s infrastructure, workers barely register in his administration’s newly-released infrastructure plan. Out of the plan’s 53 pages, it is not until page 51 that workforce development even gets covered, with little public attention beyond that. Instead, the vast majority of the plan focuses on reforming permits to get projects done more quickly and new programs to boost infrastructure investment.

Given the ongoing need for infrastructure investment nationally, it’s not surprising to see new funding and financing strategies gaining most of the limelight. But relegating workers to the bottom of the plan underplays the enormous opportunity for future infrastructure programs to promote shared prosperity.

In an economic era defined by inequality, infrastructure jobs offer one of the more stable, competitive career pathways to workers across all skill levels. The infrastructure sector employs over 14.5 million workers, most of who fill long-term, good-paying jobs with low barriers to entry. Moreover, there is a huge need to hire and train a new generation of workers in transit agencies, water utilities, and other sectors experiencing a wave of retirement in coming years. Even though a huge boost in construction hiring seems unlikely given the robust labor market at the moment, the presence of infrastructure jobs in every corner of the country makes workforce development an obvious candidate for federal action.

In an economic era defined by inequality, infrastructure jobs offer one of the more stable, competitive career pathways to workers across all skill levels.

And give the Trump administration credit: their proposal recognizes the issue. It encourages more career technical education (CTE), including additional work-based learning and improved job readiness in the skilled trades. Likewise, it proposes more funding for students enrolled in two-year postsecondary education programs, seeing this as a route to help “low-income and low-skilled students” quickly acquire vital skills. The administration’s FY2019 budget also calls for increased funding to apprenticeship programs—$200 million in total—which falls in line with Trump’s executive order to expand on-the-job training opportunities.

However, just as the administration’s proposal paints in broad strokes when discussing several new federal infrastructure investment programs, this rhetoric does too little to capture the workforce opportunities facing the country. Following the administration’s call last spring to support up to 1 million apprentices across all types of infrastructure over the next two years, it is hard to see how the current proposal will come close to achieving this goal.

To start, the proposed interventions are either too small in scale or not specific enough. For example, the proposal not only fails to spell out any specific funding totals for these workforce development efforts as a whole, but also hardly articulates the scope or timeline of any programmatic reforms, including the number of students potentially involved. Similarly, the proposal mentions reforms to licensing requirements in the skilled trades, but has zero to say about what types of licenses would be subject to change. Finally, a call to expand Pell Grant eligibilities for “high-quality, short-term” educational programs means little without specifying the different types of curricula that might be prioritized or the institutions that might receive more federal support, compared to traditional four-year and two-year colleges.

Equally concerning are the proposed budget cuts for other federal job training and educational assistance programs elsewhere in the FY2019 budget. From the Department of Labor to the Department of Education, funded programs could be cut by more than 5 percent. That includes almost $1 billion less combined for Adult Employment and Training Activities and Dislocated Workers Employment and Training Activities. At the same time, many analysts believe changes to existing CTE programs could limit schools’ abilities to flexibly use federal funds. Reduced federal support for student loan forgiveness programs may also make it harder for prospective workers to pursue additional education and seek careers in the public sector, home to many infrastructure jobs.

Admittedly, the administration’s infrastructure plan represents only the start to a broader conversation that has been brewing on Capitol Hill for some time. And if the infrastructure debate goes anywhere in the next few months, Congress is poised to address these workforce issues head-on.

The Trump administration had a chance to lead with a strong, bipartisan message on this front by highlighting workers upfront in its infrastructure plan, but unfortunately, it did not seize the opportunity.

Ideally, Capitol Hill will build on the administration’s concepts and clarify a specific range of infrastructure workforce concerns. In addition to addressing the shortcomings discussed already, new legislation should provide more direct support to local employers and community organizations that are taking the lead on hiring and training new talent. These local efforts often need more financial and programmatic capacity. Improved federal competitive grants and other technical guidance could help, but will require action at the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and U.S. Department of Transportation. Infrastructure jobs present an enormous economic opportunity—and the overall effort requires coordinated action across the federal bureaucracy.

The Trump administration had a chance to lead with a strong, bipartisan message on this front by highlighting workers upfront in its infrastructure plan, but unfortunately, it did not seize the opportunity. The good news, of course, is that workers at least appear somewhere in the plan, and there is a recognition that additional training and skills development need to be topics in future discussions. Ideally, these issues will gain even greater visibility in the months to come.

Joseph Kane is a senior research analyst and associate fellow at Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program. This article originally appeared here.