A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Recovery uneven, but infrastructure offers opportunities

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., June 5, 6 or 7

Besides the sluggish economic recovery’s good numbers, positive job changes haven’t all been good, but opportunities still exist in many aspects of the nation’s infrastructure, according to the Brookings Institution.

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics last month reported that the number of U.S. private-sector jobs had finally returned to 2008 levels – a slow recovery four years after the supposed “end” of the Great Recession. In October 2006, unemployment was 4.4 percent, but by 2009 joblessness had hit 10 percent, according to a 2013 report from the Congressional Research Service.

However, gains and losses in jobs haven’t been evenly distributed: High-wage industries lost 1 million positions, while low-wage jobs gained 1.8 million, according to a recent National Employment Law Project (NELP). Likewise, mid-wage industries accounted for 37 percent of jobs lost during the recession, but only 26 percent of positions added since.

Low-wage growth industries like food service, hospitality and some health-care work fared better.

“Relatively immune to downturns, this was the only sector to add jobs over both the downturn and recovery, pushing employment nearly 13 percent higher than it was at the start of the recession,” NELP says.

While there has been some recovery in construction, manufacturing, transportation and related occupations, the recession losses were large enough that they are still struggling to return to pre-recession levels – construction employment remains 20 percent below the 2008 high, for example, and food and textile manufacturing is 11 percent lower than at the start of the recession.

“Over the past four years, private-sector gains have been partially offset by public-sector job losses resulting from budget cuts at the federal, state and local levels,” NELP says. “Net job losses totaled 627,000 across all levels of government. Employment declines were particularly severe at the local level, where education absorbed nearly three-quarters of the 378,000 net job losses over the past four years.”

Meanwhile, the Brookings report, “Beyond Shovel-Ready: The Extent and Impact of U.S. Infrastructure Jobs,” shows that various infrastructure jobs offer more equitable wages compared to other occupations. For example, infrastructure workers at lower ends of the income scale still earn 30 percent more than workers at these levels nationally.

Further, many infrastructure jobs also require less formal education, which makes them more accessible to a larger pool of workers. Only 12 percent of workers employed in infrastructure occupations hold a college degree. Also, 67 of the 95 infrastructure occupations typically require a high school diploma or less for entry and employ 9 million workers, ranging from telecommunication line installers to water treatment plant operators. Most workers, more than 80 percent, are trained on the job.

In addition, according to this first-ever, metro-level analysis of total U.S. infrastructure employment, the workforce responsible for supporting the nation’s infrastructure – including transportation, water and energy systems – is far larger than previously thought. About 1 in 10 Americans – 11 percent of the national workforce – holds an infrastructure job, jobs stretching across 95 occupations and 42 industries.

The foundation of a functioning economy, infrastructure provides the physical structures needed for such services as water, electricity and waste removal, and they make it possible for communities to meet people’s needs and compete in the global economy.

Based on 2012 employment data, the Brookings report shows that infrastructure jobs not only build the nation’s infrastructure assets but also in design, operate and govern them.

“We have learned that infrastructure is a much more significant factor in a healthy job market than we thought, with more than 14 million workers employed in a large assortment of industries, including utilities, construction and government,” said Joseph Kane, a co-author of the report.

With such data, Kane said, “policymakers will be in a stronger position to develop targeted solutions to better manage the country’s infrastructure as well as address our jobs deficit.”

His co-author, Brookings Senior Fellow Robert Puentes, added, “Our new research exposes how infrastructure is uniquely positioned to simultaneously address income inequality, low-skill unemployment and long-term economic competitiveness.”

Over the next 10 years, nearly one-quarter of the entire infrastructure workforce will need to be replaced as retirements increase and other labor shifts take place, the study says. Fast-expanding occupations include wind turbine service technicians and solar photovoltaic installers whose employment is projected to grow by more than 20 percent.

“Infrastructure offers an extremely effective way to create the kind of long-term, sustainable jobs that will help grow our economy for many years to come,” Puentes said.

[PICTURED: Photo of solar-panel installer from]

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