By Coleman Stallworth, Research Associate, Center for Intergovernmental Partnerships
A robust infrastructure workforce is a key component in addressing 21st-century problems. However, maintaining a steady pipeline of these workers becomes challenging as many retire or leave these sectors for other opportunities. On May 16th, 2023, the Center for Intergovernmental Partnerships (the Center) convened leaders from the National Academy of Construction (NAC) and other infrastructure-related groups to discuss challenges and solutions to recruiting, training, and retaining a robust workforce.
Diversify the Workforce
Many infrastructure workers will leave in the next decade due to retirement, job transfers, and other factors, creating an urgent need for coordinated recruitment efforts. One of the factors impacting the ability to replace or retain these workers is inconsistent, narrow recruitment. NAC members pointed out that recruitment is a local issue in many ways and will require engagement with all types of communities. Reaching out to underrepresented communities and non-traditional recruiting sectors is key to diversifying the workforce. The Markle Foundation’s “Rework America” initiative helps give resources and tools to workers from low-income communities of color to help spark their career paths. Using that and similar resources/tactics will facilitate the diversification of the infrastructure workforce.
Increase Effective Youth Engagement
Diversifying the industry also means more engagement with young people, which NAC members suggest is perhaps the trickiest problem to address due to their perception of infrastructure-related jobs. Many leaders at the event recognize that the optics surrounding the infrastructure career path, especially those of construction and trades, fail to inspire young people. In the coming years, tailoring campaigns that evoke excitement for the next generation of workers will be crucial to energizing the workforce pipeline.
Some organizations have already tried to increase engagement and visibility with younger job-seekers. The American Public Works Association (APWA) helps run “The Engineering and Public Works Road Show,” which provides further education on exciting infrastructure developments and projects. While the NAC organizes “Ask Me Anything” programs where students and young professionals ask members questions about the design and construction industry. Although there is more work to do, organizations can participate in these efforts to connect with potential young workers.
Emphasize Financial Stability
Another significant factor in recruitment efforts is highlighting pay and financial stability. Organizations need to effectively communicate the benefits of the profession and emphasize the opportunities for upward mobility. Workers need to know they can have an elevated and influential role no matter where they start. Many fear that money in this industry does not last, and the career is volatile. The career and financial benefits messaging must be more coordinated to quell these worries.
Streamline Training Efforts
While recruitment is an essential first step, consistent and effective training will encourage workers to stay in the industry for decades. Workers must receive training in flexible skills that facilitate job mobility. Apprenticeship programs represent one way to provide this training. They offer structured training programs that combine on-the-job training and related technical instruction. Expanding these programs to provide additional skills training will help maximize workforce flexibility and allow easier transitions between careers and projects.
The convening identified the United States Military Apprenticeship Program as a model apprenticeship program. The program helps service members find apprenticeships based related to their military duties. They are also frequently expanding trades and occupations covered under the program. General apprenticeship programs can look at USMAP’s diverse selection of trades offered under each branch of service as a great example of including different workers’ skills and interests. The transparency of the program’s website in listing clear and defined steps for enrollment is another great feature that other programs can emulate.
For as many long-term problems that face the infrastructure workforce, there are as many potential strategies to solve them. Solidifying the next generation of workers will require effective solutions that don’t just fix issues for the next five years but the next twenty. Takeaways from this event can serve as a small catalyst for fundamental change in the U.S. workforce beyond infrastructure-related disciplines.