By Joseph W. Kane
Even as the COVID-19 pandemic keeps millions of people home and many businesses shuttered for social distancing, up to 62 million essential workers are still reporting to their jobs in hospitals, grocery stores, and other critical industries. They are on the frontlines against the coronavirus, vital to our public health and economic survival. Of them, the 17 million workers who operate and maintain our infrastructure are among the most essential — delivering our packages, keeping our water running, ensuring our broadband is up to speed, and more.
Infrastructure workers were essential long before COVID-19, but their economic importance has come into greater focus during the crisis and is beginning to shape the response, too. As federal, state, and local leaders look to provide economic relief, they must pay special attention to the support and protection of our current infrastructure workforce. Additionally, this moment offers an opportunity that we may not see again anytime soon: the chance to jumpstart long-term infrastructure careers for millions of prospective workers nationally.
Just as our infrastructure systems require generational investment, so too do our infrastructure workers. Hiring, training, and retaining a new generation of infrastructure workers will help drive our recovery and create a stronger, more resilient infrastructure system for the future.
To be sure, infrastructure is not the immediate priority. A fourth COVID-19-related stimulus package will likely table any infrastructure action, despite earlier proposals. Pressing concerns around health care access, unemployment insurance, and other public assistance should take precedence. But that does not mean leaders in Washington and elsewhere should overlook foundational investments that can help the economy regain its momentum, including our infrastructure workforce.
Supporting Our Essential Infrastructure Workers In The Short Term
The first priority is better protecting our current infrastructure workers. Additional hazard pay and extended sick leave can help ensure our essential services do not grind to a halt. For example, rates of physical proximity, disease exposure, and face-to-face interactions are high for many infrastructure workers, including bus drivers (87 percent of whom are frequently in close proximity to others), couriers and messengers (68 percent of whom are frequently exposed to disease), and telecommunications line installers and repairers (80 percent of whom have frequent face-to-face interactions). Septic tank servicers and sewer pipe cleaners have high rates across all three categories.
Fortunately, many infrastructure workers are unionized and employed in the public sector, and thus generally have higher wages, more insurance coverage, and other protections. But that’s not the case for all workers. Last week, package handlers working long, physically demanding hours at Amazon warehouses with insufficient safety precautions staged “sickouts” in protest of their conditions. Some specially trained utility workers are even being physically locked in at work to comply with disease response plans. Following the lead of cities such as Atlanta, it’s clear that offering hazard pay and extending paid sick leave can offer greater security and peace of mind during the current crisis.
A Foundation For Growth And Opportunity In The Long Term
Beyond protecting essential workers right now, there are enormous concerns over who will fill these jobs in the months and years to come. Nearly 3 million infrastructure workers are expected to retire or permanently leave their jobs in the next decade, but for some agencies and departments — in transportation, water, and energy, among others — the workforce gap is even more urgent. An aging workforce combined with a lack of visibility, flexible training, or a pipeline of young talent has hit a crisis point, especially for smaller and rural communities where operations are under threat.
These hiring gaps come despite the fact that infrastructure jobs appear in every region across the country, teach in-demand skills, pay higher wages, and have lower educational barriers to entry. These are the types of career pathways vital to supporting inclusive economic growth during a recession and beyond. Federal, state, and local leaders should help prepare students and jobseekers to fill these essential positions, which will provide a lasting economic boost. That will require investing in training and skills development, not just short-term jobs.
Policymakers have traditionally viewed infrastructure jobs in terms of construction projects. Shovel-ready jobs, for instance, were a big part of 2009’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. While constructing roads, bridges, and other facilities can potentially support thousands of direct and indirect jobs in the coming months, the reality is there are millions of jobs that operate our infrastructure. Only 15% of infrastructure jobs are involved in construction — the other 85 percent, or 14.5 million workers, repair and maintain our existing infrastructure systems.
If we learned anything from past stimulus efforts such as the Recovery Act, maintenance investments can create more jobs in the long run and upskill a broad range of workers, even though the effects may not be as immediate.
The infrastructure jobs opportunity is a chance to establish a foundation for growth by fixing and improving our infrastructure while preparing a new generation of workers for stable, long-term careers. What’s needed now is helping students and other prospective workers (including disconnected youth and the out-of-work) get flexible training to qualify for essential jobs in our water plants, energy facilities, and other systems. Worked-based learning is a must for many of these positions, and apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs are vital conduits for infrastructure careers. Additional public funding for these programs would help, but incentivizing employers to invest in on-the-job training would make a difference, too.
COVID-19 has devastated workers and communities across the country. But as we begin to explore solutions, we must not only focus on short-term relief, but also the steps that will set us up for long-term success. Protecting and investing in our essential infrastructure workers can help us achieve both.
Joseph Kane is a senior research associate and associate fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.
This research was originally published by The Brookings Institution.