How States and Local Governments Can Leverage Infrastructure Projects to Create Good Jobs

Blog Post
Feb. 7, 2022

The recent collapse of a bridge in Pittsburgh in late January underscores the urgency and importance of federal infrastructure funding in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which Congress passed and President Biden signed into law in November 2021. Now, attention has turned to implementing that law. Federal agencies are writing rules for how grant programs will be administered and funding distributed. Infrastructure funds have already begun flowing out to communities across the country, with billions more to come over the next five years. States and communities are deciding how to spend those dollars to make much-needed and long-overdue repairs to our nation’s infrastructure.

We have a unique opportunity to do more than just repair our infrastructure, though. Infrastructure projects will create a wide variety of jobs fixing bridges, installing electric vehicle charging stations, and installing broadband infrastructure, to name just a few. These are jobs that community members can and should fill, particularly people who don’t have a college degree, are low-income, or who have historically been marginalized and excluded from economic opportunity, such as people of color, women, returning citizens, and opportunity youth. Federal, state, and local policymakers can seize this opportunity by creating equitable pathways into those jobs for community members and ensuring those jobs are high quality. Infrastructure jobs should pay a living wage, offer benefits and the opportunity join a union, be connected to education and training, and give workers the ability to learn new skills and earn credentials that will be valuable in the labor market once a project has been completed. This will ensure the benefits of infrastructure investments are not just one-offs but rather set workers up to succeed in the long-term.

The majority of funds in the IIJA are covered by the Davis-Bacon Act, meaning workers on those projects will already be paid at least the prevailing wage and benefits—that is, the local pay rate for similar work in the area. It will be up to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division to enforce this and ensure other federal agencies follow Davis-Bacon. But infrastructure projects also offer an opportunity for state and local governments to use Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) and Community Benefit Agreements (CBAs) to promote good jobs and equity. PLAs are collective bargaining agreements between unions and contractors that last for the duration of a construction project, specify wages and other employment conditions, and promote hiring from local union halls. PLAs can also include hiring provisions that prioritize low-income community members. In early February, President Biden signed an executive order requiring PLAs for federal construction projects over $35 million, but this will not cover projects funded by federal grants to state and local governments.

CBAs are contracts between developers and community groups that cover specific infrastructure or development projects, detail conditions under which projects can occur, and spell out how the community will benefit. These contracts can include provisions committing firms to hire local residents for the project, provide job training, pay high-quality wages, and offer benefits.

The IIJA includes a Reconnecting Neighborhoods Program that prioritizes applications from communities that have a CBA in place and that have a plan to employ local residents, but federal agencies can build on this as they write the rules for other grant programs in the legislation, giving more weight to applicants that center job quality and equity and include PLAs and CBAs. The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) has shown how federal agencies can do this through the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) grant program for surface transportation projects. In its Notice of Funding Opportunity, USDOT asks applicants to provide information on how they will create good-paying jobs, including through the use of PLAs. Additionally, USDOT will give more weight to projects that include local or economic hire agreements as well as equitable hiring and workforce training for people from underserved communities.

States and local governments can also use the procurement process to ensure infrastructure jobs are high quality. Jobs to Move America’s U.S. Employment Plan (USEP) is a tool that cities, states, and public agencies can incorporate into their bidding process to gather more information from companies pursuing public contracts, going beyond traditional information like price to include job quality and equity. Specifically, the USEP requires companies bidding on public contracts to detail the number, type, and location of jobs they would create, as well as pay, benefits, training programs, and their plan to recruit and train historically marginalized workers.

To ensure community residents can access infrastructure jobs, it will be important for state and local transportation and public works agencies to partner with their workforce counterparts, including workforce investment boards, American Job Centers, community colleges, worker centers, and community-based organizations serving low-income residents. State and local leaders can convene these stakeholders, allowing everyone around the table to understand which infrastructure projects have been selected to move forward, the types of jobs those projects will create, and the pathways and supports needed for unemployed and underemployed community members to obtain those jobs. These stakeholders can partner on strategies to promote equitable hiring and develop or expand local workforce training programs, such as registered apprenticeships and infrastructure academies. Workforce agencies and worker centers can work with construction firms to shape the jobs that will become available on local infrastructure projects, ensuring they are high quality. Moving forward, state and local leaders can tie the workforce development system more closely to these kinds of infrastructure projects by forming permanent Equitable Infrastructure advisory boards tasked with having these kinds of conversations. In this way, the IIJA could have a lasting impact long after funding has been expended.

As Carlos Martin, Andre Perry, and Anthony Barr of Brookings note, ensuring these opportunities are available to and benefit people of color and communities that have historically been marginalized will require concerted effort and focus. And as Karla Walter, senior director of employment policy at the Center for American Progress, wrote in a recent op-ed, enforcement will be crucial to ensuring infrastructure jobs are high quality, yet enforcement agencies are operating without enough inspectors to combat violations like wage theft.

Still, this investment in infrastructure is substantial and vital. By using these dollars wisely, states and local governments can contribute to building an inclusive economy where everyone has a chance to succeed.

Enjoy what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive updates on what’s new in Education Policy!