There’s a narrative surrounding public spending, and transportation infrastructure and transit projects are no exception. Typically regarded as short-term economic stimuli to a local economy, transit projects provide quality jobs and are investments in the future. Despite the current political climate around public spending, these jobs are generally popular because they are geographically constrained and cannot easily be outsourced. This perception was recently reinforced with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) in 2009.
As a federal stimulus package distributed to the states, much of the political justification behind the initiative was focused on the use of public funds to create or save jobs in a time of deep need. Even without the extra stimulus money, federal transportation spending supports millions of jobs, and has the potential to create more across a wide spectrum of industries that support transportation.1 These jobs tend to be better paying, particularly at the lower end of the wage spectrum, than other occupations in the wider economy.2 However, closer scrutiny into the actual beneficiaries reveals that these employment opportunities may not be widely accessible. Using the construction industry as an example, there are pronounced differences in who can access these transportation jobs, as well as the quality of the job being created by transportation spending.
Despite recent increases in women employed in construction positions, less than 10% of all construction jobs may be held by women.3 Furthermore, women are underrepresented in many educational programs geared toward these occupations. There are several potential reasons for the gender imbalance, but it is likely the result of cultural norms and views within the industry itself. Women who successfully enter the industry might be delegated to a narrower range of roles compared to men and consequently it may be difficult to advance within company ranks.4 African Americans are also significantly underrepresented in the construction industry in many cities. In some cases, this translates to a gap of 10-20% fewer African Americans in construction than their wider workforce participation rate.5 This is not necessarily due to a lack of training or skills, but discrimination based on social networks and history. The informal nature of employment practices in the construction industry potentially allows for discrimination to persist.6 In addition to cultural attitudes, organizational structure may strongly determine the quality of the created jobs. In many cases, higher wages in metropolitan markets are closely correlated with higher union participation.7 Depending on context, not all construction jobs are created equal.
While it’s easy to be enthusiastic about employment forecasts and economic projections trumpeted by local governments, it’s important to understand who the beneficiaries of transportation investment projects are. Transportation investment should not be viewed as a universal panacea for putting people to work and distributing gains evenly throughout the community. Instead, infrastructure-related jobs should be seen as an asset in a wider community employment portfolio addressing all sectors and citizens. These are real jobs and real resources. However, like so many issues our field hopes to address, we must be mindful of the (often unintentional) inequalities in our best laid plans.
1Werling, Jeffrey, and Ronald Horst. “Catching Up: Greater Focus Needed to Achieve a More Competitive Infrastructure.” (2014).
2Kane, Joseph, and Robert Puentes. “Beyond Shovel-Ready: The Extent and Impact of US Infrastructure Jobs.” Washington: Brookings Institution (2014).
3Swanstrom, Todd, and Transportation Equity Network. “The road to good jobs: Patterns of employment in the construction industry.” St. Louis, Missouri: Public Policy Research Center, University of Missouri (2008).
4Greed, Clara. “Women in the construction professions: Achieving critical mass.” Gender, Work & Organization 7, no. 3 (2000): 181-196.
5Swanstrom, Todd, and Transportation Equity Network. “The road to good jobs: Patterns of employment in the construction industry.” St. Louis, Missouri: Public Policy Research Center, University of Missouri (2008).
6Waldinger, R., & Bailey, T. (1991). Hie Continuing Significance of Race: Racial Conflict and Racial Discrimination in Construction.
7Swanstrom, Todd, and Transportation Equity Network. “The road to good jobs: Patterns of employment in the construction industry.” St. Louis, Missouri: Public Policy Research Center, University of Missouri (2008).
About the Author: Ian Hamilton is a second-year Master’s candidate in City and Regional Planning at UNC Chapel Hill specializing in transportation. Prior to graduate school, Ian worked as a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Analyst in Gwinnett County, Georgia in metro Atlanta. His experience with GIS complements his professional interests in bike and pedestrian planning and safety.