Aging and in need of attention: America’s infrastructure and its 17 million workers

By now, you’re probably familiar with America’s infrastructure challenge. From clogged roads, to unsafe pipes, to limited broadband access, the list goes on. Concerns over infrastructure affordability, reliability, and overall investment also remain a constant. And despite potential infrastructure solutions coming from leaders in Washington, along the campaign trail and beyond, there has been little federal action.

But what you may not have thought or heard as much about is the enormous infrastructure workforce challenge facing the country.

Just as our physical infrastructure systems are aging and in need of attention, so too are the workers who design, construct, operate, and oversee these systems. In other words, these workers are not only constructing projects in the short-term, but maintaining all types of facilities in the long-term—from ports and power plants to railroads and waterways. The problem is that many of them are nearing or are eligible for retirement, and there is not a strong training pipeline to educate and equip a new generation of talent with the skills they need.

Past Brookings research has shown the wide range of workers involved in managing the country’s infrastructure, and the latest labor data from 2018 shows a continued demand for skilled workers throughout this foundational economic sector.

Crucially, though, this workforce challenge also presents a workforce opportunity. At a time when many Americans are still struggling to secure stable, well-paying jobs, infrastructure offers just that.

Indeed, the enormous number and variety of infrastructure jobs speak to the multiple career pathways available to workers across all skill levels and all regions. Estimates from 2018 find that nearly 17.2 million workers—or about 12 percent of all workers nationally—are employed in infrastructure jobs, concentrated in 94 different occupations. Electricians, water treatment operators, and civil engineers are among the largest occupations overall, in addition to many other positions in the skilled trades, finance, and management. Truck drivers and material movers remain essential to carrying out a range of non-automated tasks. Taken together, infrastructure jobs employed more workers than retail (16.0 million) or manufacturing (12.6 million), among other sizable sectors.


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