Building Tomorrow’s Transportation Workforce: New Eno Report Offers Guidance

Two key pieces of recent federal legislation–the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA)–provide hundreds of billions of dollars to state and local governments for building and improving transportation infrastructure and curbing climate emissions. To be successful in meeting the mobility, equity, and sustainability goals outlined in these laws, these mega capital investments must be met with the right people and talent.  

Of the 16.6 million infrastructure jobs in the United States, the vast majority (72.8 percent) are in transportation. The COVID-19 pandemic was a major disruptor, cutting jobs across the sector except for in warehousing and logistics professions. While most of this workforce is back to its normal levels after the pandemic, some key sub sectors are continuing to witness high levels of job losses, bringing to the fore some of the longstanding workforce challenges faced by the transportation sector. For example, transit and rail sectors, which have experienced steep job declines during the pandemic, are continuing to see slow recovery and high levels of job separation. The transportation sector has also conventionally failed to attract new and diverse workforces. Compared to the national average, transportation jobs are serviced by people that are older and male. 

With the infrastructure investments mobilized by recent laws, states and local governments now have a significant responsibility and an opportunity to reverse these trends. They should use this momentum to build and nurture diverse talent pipelines that can meet evolving workforce demands of the transportation sector.  A recent report released by Eno, the Markle Foundation, and National Association of State Energy Officials (NASEO), titled “Realizing the Workforce Potential of Infrastructure Investments” offers some guidance in this regard.  

The report highlights three key strategies for expanding and institutionalizing workforce development programming in state agendas:  

Deepen Cross-Agency Coordination: Workforce development is an issue that touches upon multiple facets of policymaking and thereby multiple public stakeholders, including the state workforce agencies, state departments of transportation (DOTs), training institutions, and the governor’s offices. There is an immense need for these entities to coordinate more formally– either through a memorandum of understanding (MOU) or other means– and create dedicated staff positions to manage workforce efforts. In 2020, the California Workforce Development Board and the Public Utilities Commission have signed an MOU to coordinate workforce efforts in the clean energy and transportation sectors. California’s recent efforts to help formerly incarcerated individuals secure jobs at Caltrans is also a good example of cross-agency collaboration. 

Augment Workforce Program Funding: IIJA and IRA make available money which can be used by states toward workforce programming. The biggest bucket of funding is available via the formula dollars that go to state DOTs. Around $250 billion is available between 2022 and 2026 under four core highway programs (NHPP, STBG, HSIP, CMAQ), and states have considerable flexibility to use this toward workforce development activities that support those programs. IIJA also expanded the list of eligible workforce activities that can be covered under this funding opportunity. Further, most discretionary grant programs under IIJA prioritize applicants that have considered workforce planning and programming for their project. States, therefore, have a great opportunity to expend on creating workforce plans, training programs, enhancing recruitment efforts, and even supportive services such as childcare.  

Embed Into Procurement: State agencies can also use several procurement levers to enhance job quality. These include embedding apprenticeship program requirements, Project Labor Agreements (PLAs), and targeted or local hire policies in procurement contracts. For example, LA Metro has a PLA with the building trades requiring that 20 percent of construction project hours be completed by apprentices. States can also offer financial incentives to high-road employers to encourage private entities to offer good quality and good paying jobs with employee benefits.  

While these are not a comprehensive list of strategies, they describe some of the fundamental steps that state departments of transportation and other entities must take to enhance job quality and build an inclusive workforce in the transportation sector. New federal infrastructure funding will create 1.5 million jobs every year over the next decade. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 1.7 million people will separate from their jobs in the infrastructure sectors during the same period. State and local governments, therefore, have a difficult role to play as they maneuver a once-in-a-generation opportunity created by the new infrastructure funding. How they prioritize and address workforce issues is going to define job access, job quality, and the nature of economic growth in years to come.  


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