Service and conservation programs can lead to infrastructure

Funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) is starting to flow across the country, accelerating thousands of transportation, water, energy, and other projects. But those are just the beginning of the $860 billion in investments over the coming years that will reach transportation departments, water utilities, and other infrastructure owners and operators at a state and local level. And the challenge facing these entities is not simply getting more shovels in the ground, but maximizing the economic reach of this generational funding. That’s especially the case for millions of workers who remain unemployed, underemployed, or disconnected from the labor market. 

Infrastructure investment holds promise in creating more enduring and equitable jobs—including those with longer-term career pathways, higher pay, and lower formal educational barriers to entry in the skilled trades and other related fields. Infrastructure jobs are not just short-term positions in construction, but long-term positions involved in operation and maintenance—think electricians, technicians, and climate-related positions—which need a steady pipeline of talent, particularly younger talent. These workers are moving people, shipping goods, pumping water, capturing and distributing energy, laying broadband, and more.  

However, many infrastructure jobs face high turnover and remain unfilled, with employers struggling to hire, train, and retain talent. The influx of IIJA funds for additional projects means even more workers will be needed, and now is the time to start planning—and filling—these positions. That is where service and conservation programs come in. 

Infrastructure employers need a new approach to recruiting, hiring, and training workers  

To hire more workers, the state and local entities eligible for IIJA funding need to prioritize strategic workforce planning and apply the same discipline in sourcing talent as they do in sourcing other inputs. For many infrastructure employers, this will require a change in HR practices, which tend to be traditional and rigid; for example, utilities and transportation departments can struggle to provide visible, flexible pathways for prospective workers. This extends beyond just infrastructure firms—across all industries, developing robust recruitment and training strategies often takes a backseat to shorter-term operational and project management goals. This is especially true for positions that do not require a bachelor’s degree 

Waiting until the last minute to fill vacancies and relying upon existing social and professional networks is a fairly common recruitment strategy. However, this strategy is a particularly poor fit for infrastructure employers, given that their workforce skews older, white, and male. As incumbent workers retire, employers need to reach a younger, more diverse workforce—which requires partnerships with high schools, postsecondary education, and workforce programs. And replicating the existing workforce would perpetuate the racism and sexism that foreclosed infrastructure job opportunities to many women and people of color over the years. The demand for more infrastructure workers is especially urgent given the influx of new federal funding, and the country needs an all-hands-on-deck approach to recruiting millions of workers, getting projects done, and helping more communities.  

Service and conservation corps can develop infrastructure workers  

A key change is that infrastructure employers need to think more broadly about their recruitment, hiring, and training practices. And, for their part, workforce organizations, schools, and community groups need to be ready and willing partners. One such partner is the network of service and conservation corps programs around the country, including state service commissions that support AmeriCorps programs at the state and local level. Existing programs such as YouthBuild, conservation corps, and other groups (many funded by AmeriCorps) already have experience recruiting, training, and putting people to work on a variety of projects. Service programs primarily recruit people in their late teens and 20s (although the model is flexible and could recruit with a wider age lens), and many focus more specifically on Black and Latino or Hispanic people and those not on track to earn a college degree. 

Service programs could form a natural pipeline for infrastructure careers. In fact, many of the projects and activities service and conservation programs carry out are already infrastructure-related: planting trees, maintaining trails, retrofitting buildings with energy-efficient lighting and heating, and repairing and maintaining transportation infrastructure. Approaches to skill-building are similar as well. All corps members receive on-the-job training, as do 80% of infrastructure workers. Service programs could help quickly increase skills development across a variety of fields, including science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), which are essential in these careers 

A number of existing service corps programs demonstrate the strength of the model. The California Conservation Corps, the California Climate Action Corps, AmeriCorps NCCC, YouthBuild, and individual members of the Corps Network show what is possible. They engage with area employers to plug young people into the local labor market; offer members the chance to earn industry-recognized credentials; prepare members for apprenticeships; and orient members to the range of careers related to sustainability, conservation, disaster prevention and relief, and environmental resilience. The key is that while the scope of action should be national, additional service programs should be informed and driven by innovative models at a state and local level, in much the same way leaders have done with American Rescue Plan Act funding over the past year. 

Service programs would not only contribute to infrastructure projects and help build out the sector’s workforce, but can also provide much-needed support and structure as young people start their careers. As a form of work-based learning, service programs provide corps members the chance to learn technical, applied, and interpersonal skills in ways that are difficult to achieve in the classroom alone. Since they offer stipends, service programs are also a flexible and accessible way to learn, especially for those who cannot afford to attend school or training without also working—a key stumbling block in today’s economy.  

The IIJA and infrastructure jobs moment  

Today’s challenge—and opportunity—is to ensure that the infrastructure field develops the workforce it needs to carry out projects supported by the IIJA and those in decades to come, ideally in ways that open the field to a broader pool of prospective workers. IIJA funding comes in two main forms: formula funding and competitive grants. While both types of funding will stretch over the next five years (2022 to 2026), formula funding will tend to reach state and local entities faster than competitive funding, which influences the timing, scale, and nature of impact. 

Formula funding accounts for the majority (76%) of IIJA funding, with federal agencies apportioning money to states based on pre-existing formulas, such as population or number of roadway miles. For the most part, IIJA formula funds do not offer many explicit requirements regarding workforce development, so state and local entities can be fairly flexible in how they partner with service programs and other workforce groups to recruit, train, and hire workers for different IIJA-funded initiatives. For example, Oregon and Maryland are carving out a portion of their transportation formula grants for supportive services (like child care) and sector partnerships.  

A key issue, however, is that workforce efforts are an allowable—not required—use of funds, and the state and local entities receiving IIJA funding have varying levels of familiarity with organizations and systems that provide education and training. Some have no experience while others have strong partnerships with schools and other groups. It’s a safe bet, though, that most entities have less rather than more experience with workforce-related groups.  

It is therefore incumbent upon service programs, state service commissions, and anyone else interested in promoting access to infrastructure jobs to reach out to state transportation departments, regional water utilities, energy and broadband utilities, and other IIJA-funded entities to build relationships and offer ideas of how their program or broader service portfolio can help develop the infrastructure workforce. State service commissions distribute around 75% of current AmeriCorps funding for service-year programs, and are often run out of the governor’s office, state labor department, or other state agency. Along with individual service programs, state commissions are well positioned to engage with infrastructure agency leads to build out career pipelines. 

Competitive funding accounts for about 24% of all IIJA funding. In these cases, federal agencies will evaluate a wide assortment of infrastructure project proposals across the country. These grant programs are likely to incorporate guidance and requirements around workforce issues, which creates a natural opening for service corps and other workforce programs.  

For instance, the Department of Transportation’s Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) grant program will award $1.5 billion in funding for 2022 alone, evaluating eligible applicants based on their ability to support “high-quality, good paying jobs…[by] incorporating workforce strategy into project development.” Likewise, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields Program includes $1.2 billion in assistance to state, local, and other entities focused on a variety of clean-up projects, with $30 million in specific job training grants.  

Still, guidance around workforce needs—and equity considerations more broadly—remains unclear in many other competitive programs. Dozens of new programs, including many at the Department of Energy, are still evolving and have yet to spell out how they will address workforce development. Federal agencies could specifically note that engaging with service programs or state service commissions is an allowable use of funds, and perhaps award extra points or consideration for proposals that do so.  

Just as the IIJA offers unprecedented investments in our physical infrastructure, it also offers a generational opportunity to create greater and more equitable access to infrastructure jobs. State and local leaders should consider service and conservation corps as a valuable asset as they seek to develop the next generation of infrastructure workers.