The Trouble With Transportation Jobs

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

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.”

For their part, FHWA officials say they lack the resources to provide oversight over state efforts. According to the Government Accountability Office report, the agency’s office of civil rights has only one full-time employee, who oversees both on-the-job training and their support programs. Furthermore, federal officials say that they place higher priority on the other civil rights programs for which they’re responsible, such as the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program, designed to ensure equitable administration of transportation contracts; and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting discrimination in programs that receive federal assistance.