Will infrastructure investments mean better jobs for Californians?

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), signed last November by President Biden, will bring about $45 billion to California over the next few years. About three-quarters of the funding is for road and transit infrastructure projects; other spending will support broadband, water infrastructure and airports, among other projects. These federal investments would complement several infrastructure proposals included in this year’s state budget, such as the California Five-Year Infrastructure Plan and the Transport infrastructure set.

This large influx of funding will create new infrastructure jobs in California. Workers in the sector hold a wide range of jobs, some of which require skills and training that can lead to higher wages than other occupations. If these historic investments translate into more firsts, and if Californians are able to train for them, some infrastructure workers could gain greater economic mobility.

The infrastructure workforce includes occupations involved in the design, construction, operation and governance of California’s infrastructure. Nearly two-thirds of the workforce work in low-paying jobs in operations, including stock and freight handlers, delivery truck drivers and packers. Around 20% of infrastructure jobs are related to construction, while 11% relate to infrastructure design. A small portion of jobs are associated with governance.

As infrastructure projects ramp up in California, initial labor requirements will likely be for design and construction. In design professions like architecture and engineering, workers tend to hold at least a bachelor’s degree, while construction workers have lower levels of education. We see very low rates of poverty or near-poverty (i.e. annual household income of less than $53,400 for a family of four, although it varies by region) among working people design (8%), but higher rates among those in construction (21%).

Full-time workers employed in the infrastructure construction sector have higher average earnings than those in the operations sector (about $61,000 versus $45,000). In operations, about 33% of full-time workers are poor or near poor, only marginally better than those in other low-wage jobs like personal services or healthcare support, but much better than workers full time in food preparation and serving positions.

The demand for skilled trades training will likely increase as infrastructure labor needs grow and Californians seek better job opportunities. While training new workers who could soon help design is an ambitious goal, training more construction workers may be more immediately achievable. But in today’s tight labor market, where wages are rising fastest in some of the lowest-paying sectors, it can be difficult to attract workers to new sectors or to training programs that could prepare them for infrastructure work.

Workplace education, such as apprenticeships and skills upgrades, could help create a infrastructure talent pool, while improving worker productivity and economic opportunity. For this to happen, community colleges, workforce development partners, employers, unions and others will need to work together to create pathways that are efficient, effective and fair, and soon. Creating more effective pathways between employers and community college career education programs will be an important part of the solution.

Policymakers and practitioners should prepare California to make the most of historic infrastructure investments. The latest funds and projects have the potential to equip the state for future economic growth while providing labor opportunities for more Californians.

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