By Laura Bliss, CityLab

May 18, 2016

This article was originally published by The Atlantic CityLab. 

With millions of jobs in transportation, water, and energy opening up over the next decade, workforce development programs are essential, a new report finds.

In Flint, Michigan—which has become America’s poster city for aging infrastructure—the water still remains unsafe to drink, and only a handful of lead service lines have been replaced. This is a double-decker crisis: The longer Flint goes without water, the more distant its hopes of economic recovery become.

Harold Harrington, an official with the UA Local 370 plumbers’ union, believes he has a solution to both problems. If enough young people in Flint learn plumbing through the union’s apprenticeship program, he believes pipe replacement and water infrastructure projects can be sustained for decades to come. “We’d love to train them in a trade,” he told CityLab earlier this year. “Then they can have a career. We don’t just want to hand them a shovel and say ‘there.’”

A new report from the Brookings Institution suggests the U.S. as a whole could benefit from Harrington’s way of thinking. As poverty and economic inequality continue to rise, there’s opportunity in infrastructure, with some 3 million jobs opening up across the U.S. over the next decade due to an aging workforce and job turnover. Local governments in particular should follow Harrington’s lead, the report suggests, to create the workforce development programs necessary to fill those blue-collar jobs.

What jobs? Like Harrington, this report isn’t just talking about short-term construction work—though the phrase “infrastructure jobs” probably conjures images of workers hammering on a sparkling new bridge or treatment plant. After all, that’s often how infrastructure spending gets framed by politicians: With X millions of dollars for this new project, Y number of short-term jobs will be created.

But consider the depth and breadth of activities and facilities that “infrastructure” really includes: roads; bridges; water, energy, and transit systems; telecommunications; shipping and logistics. By Brookings’ calculations, some 14.5 million workers—or about 11 percent of the U.S. workforce—are directly engaged in supporting these systems. Most of these workers are responsible for tasks that last decades beyond discrete construction projects.

“We’re talking about everything from moving exports to creating more efficient water distribution systems,” says Joseph Kane, a researcher at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings who co-authored the report. “It’s highway-maintenance workers, truck drivers, water-treatment operators, solar panel installers, nuclear engineers, environmental engineers”—and all the office workers who handle administrative and financial matters.

And though wages for these jobs are often well above national averages, roughly two-thirds of these jobs only require a high school diploma or less for entry. They do, however, require special knowledge and tools. Based on 2014 data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration, roughly 12 million infrastructure workers need certain skills that can’t necessarily be learned in traditional education settings. For example, 92 percent of those workers required “above-average” levels of knowledge in transportation, and 71 percent needed to know as much about public safety and security. (For comparison, roughly one-third required above-average levels of building and construction knowledge.) With the exception of engineering jobs, where having a specialized degree is often essential, most successful infrastructure work hinges on apprenticeships, internships, and on-the-job training.

And that, says Kane, is where local governments and employers need to step in, because the workers supporting American infrastructure are retiring in droves, or simply dropping out of their industries. Though the federal government and labor organizations are doing a fair share of workforce development, metropolitan areas are home to the lion’s share of infrastructure facilities and activities, and to the vast majority of Americans workers. Cities, then, should be working with private and civic players to create clear avenues to employment for a younger, more diverse generation of infrastructure workers. Kane offers a few examples of success: Memphis has its “Aerotropolis” career initiative, promoting the shipping and air traffic industries; Chicago has partnerships with local colleges to promote supply-chain-management training; San Francisco’s water utility offers apprenticeships and internships to prospective workers as it builds out more environmentally friendly infrastructure.

As the national dialogue focuses on the need for infrastructure spending, this report makes plain the value of including workforce-development investments in that equation. “We know there is a distinct sector of valuable assets that are crucial to manage and operate,” Kane says. “There is a clear opportunity for workers, almost regardless of the type of job.” Infrastructure, it seems, really could help get the U.S. economy up to speed.