Water Works

Workforce opportunities in storm water and green infrastructure

Each year, enough untreated sewage is released into America’s waterways to cover the entire state of Pennsylvania 1 in. deep. We can and should fix this—and can create broad opportunities for diverse, high-quality employment in doing so.

The Need to Invest

A recent report released by Green for All, in partnership with the Economic Policy Institute, American Rivers and Pacific Institute, examined the economic and job creation impact of a $188.4-billion investment in water infrastructure in the U.S. Titled “Water Works: Creating Jobs, Rebuilding Infrastructure,” the report finds that an investment of $188.4 billion spread equally over the next five years would generate $265.6 billion in economic activity and create close to 1.9 million jobs. The report also reviews the workforce opportunities that would result from such an investment, analyzing a representative set of occupations in industries related to water infrastructure.

A significant level of investment in water infrastructure and, in particular, storm water infrastructure, is urgently needed. “Water Works” reviews evidence of a water and wastewater infrastructure in the U.S. that is outdated, overextended and in crisis. This decaying water infrastructure pollutes our waters, sickens our children and wastes natural resources.

As infrastructure deteriorates, investment is not keeping pace. Total public investment in water infrastructure as a share of the economy is estimated to have fallen by more than one-third since peak levels of investment in 1975. As new challenges emerge and systems deteriorate further, the annual investment gap is growing.

Reversing this trend will require significant new investments that ensure the highest return possible and provide a multitude of benefits to our communities. This kind of strategic approach requires not only making traditional infrastructure upgrades but also pursuing new approaches, particularly green infrastructure techniques. Although an increasing number of cities are implementing green infrastructure strategies, these opportunities have not been realized as extensively as their multiple benefits warrant.

Fortunately, investing in water and other infrastructure is one of the most efficient methods of job creation in the current economy. Infrastructure investments create about 16% more jobs dollar-for-dollar than a payroll tax holiday, almost 40% more jobs than an across-the-board tax cut and five-plus times as many jobs as temporary business tax cuts.

Investing in water infrastructure truly represents an opportunity to drive economic growth and improve the health of our communities. With this in mind, it is important to examine the composition of the resulting workforce, as well as the quality and accessibility of the jobs that are created. Understanding these opportunities will help the U.S. develop a sustainable water future and improve workforce development efforts toward that end.

Occupations Analysis

“Water Works” finds that most of the occupations associated with water infrastructure projects do not require high levels of formal education. Fifteen of the 17 occupations listed typically require a high school degree plus some post-secondary education or training. The vast majority of jobs in these occupations (with the exception of environmental engineering and construction management) are accessible to workers who do not have a four-year college degree.

This provides an important opportunity to counteract income inequality, which has skyrocketed over the past few decades due largely to increases in the “college premium” since 1979. The college premium is the pay advantage enjoyed by workers who have completed a four-year college degree, controlling for other relevant labor market characteristics such as gender, race, ethnicity, experience and region of residence.

In 1979, the college premium was roughly 50% (i.e., college graduates earned wages that were 50% higher on average than those of nongraduates); by 2007, it had risen to roughly 80%. Pushing against this trend by opening up job opportunities with family-supporting wages for “middle-skilled” workers without college degrees is a vitally important step toward a more just and equitable society.

Most of the jobs supported by these investments also are more unionized than jobs in the overall economy, with unionization rates as high as 38%—well above the national average of 10.7%. Unionization bolsters the average wages of these occupations, which for the most part meet or exceed a living wage standard. It also impacts the ability of workers to move up a career ladder, as many of these occupations are supported by registered apprenticeship programs and joint labor-management programs. These programs are privately financed and have a long track record of providing high-quality training to both apprentices and incumbent journeyperson workers.

An exception to the above is the landscaping and groundskeeping worker occupation, which is notable in that of the occupations studied it is most closely associated with green infrastructure techniques. Wage rates for this occupation are low, and the industry is rife with low-road contractors, frequent violations of employment law and few, if any, benefits for workers.

On the positive side, this industry, with its low bar to entry, is accessible to workers with low levels of education and training. But such access will be of little benefit without well structured pathways to careers, with associated education and training programs, skill certifications and bargaining power for workers in the marketplace. There are encouraging examples of green infrastructure training programs, but as we make these investments in green infrastructure, we must pay close attention to the career pathways and the quality of the jobs we are creating.

The report finds that people of color tend to be underrepresented in many of the construction sector occupations, especially in medium- to high-paying jobs (e.g., managers and engineers), although they fare well in some decently paid occupations (e.g., construction laborers and cement masons). Women also are vastly underrepresented, comprising between 0% and 7% of most of these occupations. Only in the environmental engineer occupation do women exceed 10%.

Critical for Communities

These findings emphasize that while water investments can provide greater economic opportunity for communities most in need, they should be accompanied by smart education and training policies, especially those that support quality nontraditional employment and other pre-apprenticeship training programs that foster career pathways for women and people of color. Investment also should include targeted hiring strategies to ensure that all communities benefit from the critical investments we need to keep our water clean and communities healthy.