College & Workforce Readiness

Trump’s Infrastructure Plan: A Fleeting Jobs Boost for HS Grads, Dropouts

By Catherine Gewertz — January 27, 2017 2 min read
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President Trump’s proposal to spend up to $1 trillion on infrastructure in the next decade will likely create a huge spike in the number of jobs available for people who dropped out of high school or earned only a high school diploma, but that increase will be only temporary, according to a new report.

A new study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce questions whether those jobs will lead to sustainable careers for the millions of people who get them. Its co-authors worry that Americans could see the jobs boom of the infrastructure initiative as “a false dawn” in the blue-collar economy.

The study, published this month, predicts that 11 million jobs could be generated by Trump’s vision of massive projects to improve transportation, border security, telecommunications, and other sectors. It says that 55 percent of those jobs would go to high school graduates and dropouts.

Most of the jobs will require at most six months of formal and informal on-the-job training, the study says, and will pay better than most jobs for workers with high school diplomas or less.

Construction and utility workers, skilled tradesmen, office and retail workers will be in high demand during those projects, the study says.

But the expansion in blue-collar jobs could be misleading, the study says, because fundamentally, those kinds of jobs are disappearing in the modern economy.

The sudden, temporary expansion in the number of manual-labor jobs doesn’t change the fact that most jobs in today’s economy require at least a year of training beyond a high school diploma, the study said. In a report last year, the Georgetown center found that 11.5 million of the 11.6 million jobs added to the economy during the recovery from the Great Recession went to people with at least some college education.

The study’s lead author, Anthony P. Carnevale, calls Trump’s infrastructure proposal a “high school jobs project that has the potential to temporarily revive the blue-collar economy.” But “temporarily” appears to be a pivotal concept here: The report questions whether these jobs will lead to sustainable careers.

Others, however, see the possibility of good-paying, sustainable careers in the big infrastructure investment. At a recent congressional briefing, career-tech-ed advocates argued that such investments create demand for good-paying jobs in design, engineering, and other fields, according to a recent account of that meeting on the Association for Career and Technical Education blog. (You can see some photos from that gathering here.)

The Georgetown study argues that the expansion of jobs during the infrastructure initiative would benefit workers, providing not only good wages but additional training. But it also poses an open question about what happens to those workers down the road.

There is no doubt that the infrastructure boom would result in upskilling for workers involved. While a majority of the jobs would go to workers with only high school and short-term training, their limited formal preparation would give them access to highly valuable work experience and state-of-the-art technology as well as the formal and informal training available on the job. The longer-term challenge will be whether those skills learned on and off the job are transferable to careers available when the infrastructure boom is over ... Infrastructure jobs would likely boom and then decline, except for a growth in the share of workers necessary to maintain, repair, and update infrastructure. Our historical experience, especially in manufacturing, suggests that many of the skills obtained in the boom would not be transferable to the modern high-tech service dominated economy.

Image: Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.