The Trouble With Transportation Jobs

Obama says that infrastructure jobs will lift up the unemployed, but do they leave blacks behind?

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A recent Senate vote may have blocked President Obama's $447 billion American Jobs Act, but the fight is not over yet for the White House and congressional Democrats. They plan to salvage other parts of the plan by reintroducing them as smaller pieces of legislation.

"Tonight's vote is by no means the end of this fight," Obama said in a statement on Tuesday. "In the coming days, members of Congress will have to take a stand on whether they believe we should put teachers, construction workers, police officers and firefighters back on the job."

One of the bill's key components that they will push is new spending for repairing highways and other transportation infrastructure projects, a proposal that might actually gain bipartisan support. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO alike have encouraged investment in our crumbling roads, bridges and transit systems as a means for creating jobs, from mechanics and carpenters to quality control managers.

But while the multibillion-dollar highway construction industry could give a jolt to the national 9 percent unemployment rate, it's doubtful whether such jobs will make a dent on the 16 percent rate for blacks, since African-American workers have long been excluded from the industry. According to a 2011 Government Accountability Office report (pdf), construction trades are dominated by white males, with women averaging 8 to 10 percent, and African Americans making up 5 to 7 percent of the workforce. The report further notes that the construction industry largely works through informal personal networks, making it difficult for those outside "the club" to break in.

"There tends to be a lot of finger-pointing," Laura Barrett, executive director of the Transportation Equity Network, a community-organizing group, told The Root of the barriers. " 'It's the trade union. No, it's the contractors. No, it's crummy apprenticeship training.' But the problem is between all of them. All of them have a responsibility, and we cannot allow these kinds of discriminatory decisions to go on."

There is, however, a long-standing federally mandated program designed to place more underrepresented workers in highway construction jobs. Enacted in 1968 by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), it requires states that receive federal aid for highways to use some of that funding to implement on-the-job training, targeted at minorities and women. The Department of Transportation also provides up to $10 million per year for grants and other support services, to ensure that on-the-job training fully prepares and places underrepresented workers in infrastructure jobs.

Although FHWA regulations provide general criteria to consider in their training programs, such as local demographics and project size, programs vary considerably because states are given flexibility in how they implement them. A new Transportation Equity Network report (pdf) shows, however, that with insufficient federal oversight and no hard rules for how much states need to invest in them, most states have failed to fully utilize this decades-old program.

Program Without Rules?

Using data compiled from 2008 to 2010, the study shows how each state is succeeding or failing to boost minority access to jobs in highway construction. States that fared particularly badly in terms of numbers of on-the-job apprenticeships created from 2008 to 2010 included New Jersey (125), North Carolina (127) and Maryland (214). By contrast, the top states maximizing use of the training programs over the same time period were Indiana (1,573), Illinois (1,028) and California (915).

"There haven't really been any federal penalties for underutilizing on-the-job training programs," said Barrett, who explained that each state is allowed to set their own criteria for how much they're required to invest and hire, and they set their own sanctions for failing to fulfill those requirements. In other words, the programs lack enforcement weight. "The U.S. Department of Transportation has lifted up the states that do a good job to other local transportation officials, and they have provided workshops around the country on best practices and models that have worked well. But there haven't been real performance standards on many transportation programs."