On 12th October, Brookings Metro hosted a panel discussion about the pressing need to direct federal dollars towards investing in America’s infrastructure workforce. Brookings researcher Joseph Kane facilitated presentations from two politicians and a roundtable with three workforce experts offering their views on how America can respond to the pandemic with a renewed commitment towards infrastructure. Kane frames the conversation: 17 million workers are unemployed, amounting to one in ten jobs in the US. With starting wages 30% higher than starting salaries for all other sectors, infrastructure jobs have a strong case for being considered as part of the federal recovery package after the November election.

Opening remarks

The casual dress-code of webinar is obeyed by Senator Tim Kaine, calling in from his home office dressed in brown v-neck sweater over a red t-shirt. This didn’t detract from the seriousness of his account as he made an audit of America’s infrastructure landscape. Massive investment is needed to fix bridges, update the storage and transmission of energy and attend to broadband connect that has been exposed by COVID-19’s digital divide. A budget of $800 billion is needed, with bridges alone accounting for 46,000 projects.

This “accumulation of needs” corresponds to Kaine’s work in D.C. supporting bipartisan that would make a sizeable investment in America’s aging infrastructure. Low interest rates and the economic devastation of COVID-19 underscore the timing as the country starts “climbing out of an economic challenge” with the chance of opting for benefits that will last for another 40-50 years.

A target for Kaine has been Pell Grants, federal subsidies that help students pay for Higher Education on 14-week-long courses. Kaine points out that vocational courses tend to be eight weeks in length, so aren’t eligible for Pell Grants. This doesn’t make sense to the Senator who makes some quick calculations: a candidate pursuing a technical course will spend 40 hours per week pursuing the qualification with supervision, compared with the low-contact that college courses provide in academic settings (typically three hours per week). Referring to his son, who was until recently an active marine, Kaine mentioned how grants of up to $4500 couldn’t be administered by an officer to allow a soldier to train in a skilled trades. Even if an ordinance specialists could pass a $300 course from American Welding Society and benefit the forces, they wouldn’t be eligible for tuition assistance through Pell.

The BUILDS Act and JOBS Act are the focuses for Kaine, emphasising both the need to train workers to update and maintain America’s infrastructure, while also providing support for the extension of Pell grants for high quality career education.

The panel

Nicole Smith spoke as Chief Economist of Georgetown CEW where she developed a framework for human capital development. Smith set out the scale of the issue in further detail - 29,000 direct jobs per $1.36 billion spent in one study, or at the least 13,000 according to another study looking at the same investment amount. Later in the webinar, Smith dug into the detail to highlight just how extensive the training demands are:

  • 55% of the infrastructure workforce have a high school diploma or less. 67% of them will need 6+ months of training
  • 13% have a BA+ but even of these, 45% will need more training
  • Of those with middle skills, 51% will need up to 6 months of training

With all these efforts, Smith reminds us that equitable distribution is vital. 30-40 million Americans remain disconnected from high speed internet, a content and communications disadvantage which is exacerbated by library closures and reduced admittance at Starbucks.

Marie Walker, COO of The Corps Network spoke about the 25,000 young people on environmental and infrastructure projects through the organization. Their work has been responsible for disposing of 35 million pounds of waste, creating 1.4m acres of habitat. On training, Walker cites a poll that suggested that 51% American working population doesn’t know where to go to get training in their area.

Jane Oates of Working Nation raises a point of caution - labour bills have been good at tracking money but not helpful at identifying who benefited an an individual level.

Wrapping up

Congressman Steven Horsford entered the webinar from Nevada to speak for the final 10 minutes. Previously, Horsford was in charge of the Culinary Trading Academy in the state, also supporting the JOBS Act. The Congressman made it clear that even with unemployment so high, we need to think about what kinds of jobs are we creating and will they pay enough. The median salary is currently at $18,000 with 53m working Americans in low income affecting 44% of the total population.

Horsford referenced his Skill and Knowledge Investments Leverage Leaders’ Untapped Potential Tax Credit bill, the SKILL Up Act. This was put forward February 2020 to create tax credits for spending on work-based learning for low income. Picking up from Smith, Horsford reminds us that “infrastructure” needs to include workers themselves, not just the material aspects of transport, telecoms and public buildings, and in so doing bring down gender and racial barriers.

Visit brookings.edu to watch the webinar recording