The IIJA, WFD, and the CCCs

Pam Sornson, JD

Pam Sornson, JD

January 16, 2024

How and where to allocate available funding is a critical element of any infrastructure project, especially if there is more than $1 trillion to be distributed. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 (IIJA) was specific in its focus when determining how to best use its $1T asset value. Four central U.S. government departments – the Departments of Energy, Commerce, Transportation, and Labor – are the primary beneficiaries of the funds, which are to be used to improve and innovate foundational community resources as well as develop the workforce that will keep those services working and in good condition. The ‘workforce development’ aspect encompasses more than just providing funding to pay workers. It also covers the costs of the incremental steps needed to get those workers ready to go: policy development, implementation strategies, and educational reorganization are all necessary to ensure the resulting labor force is well-trained for the work it is expected to perform. Consequently, the IIJA is facilitating an overhaul of the higher education sector to build the country’s future workforce training programs.

 

Demand Drives Distribution

The IIJA doesn’t specify how training should occur or who should be doing it. However, one logical choice to provide those services would be training institutions already embedded in the community: the nation’s community colleges. These local academic and technical schools are already on the front line of the labor development initiative. With IIJA funding, they can adapt existing programs and build new ones to train students for both current and future occupations. And a vast array of new jobs will emerge as the economy absorbs modern labor innovations, such as artificial intelligence and automation. Across three federal agencies, almost $500 M is allocated for training purposes:

The Department of Energy (DOE) has $160 M available for both career skills training and to expand its network of energy engineers through the development of more Industrial Assessment Centers.

The Department of Labor (DOL) has $50 M in grant funding through its Strengthening Community Colleges Training program.

The Department of Transportation (DOT), tasked with perhaps the most significant aspect of the bill, will share up to $280 M over five years for training the workforce needed for its Low and No Emissions Bus Program. Additionally, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), passed in November ’23, continues existing DOT funding for ‘surface’ transportation projects and advances funding appropriations for supporting services through 2026. These funds will add resources – and workforce – to ensure the nation’s air space, highways, railroads, and commercial waterways are safe for use (especially in light of climate change), modernized to optimize digital resources, and equitable.

Each state is empowered to spend its share of the federal opportunity as it sees fit, according to its unique industrial, social, and educational challenges. However, the national legislation does have some caveats about how at least some of the money must be spent. Eligible workforce development projects funded by the BIL, for example, must meet four primary criteria:

Increase women and minority participation in the workforce;

Fill workforce gaps – provide workers for jobs that are currently unfilled;

Add digital and related training elements to support emerging transport realities and

Attract new investment opportunities to incorporate new revenue sources into the economy.

With these parameters in place, Governors and other workforce development leaders are free to fund (among many options) student tuition sources, apprenticeship developments, collaborative organizations, and outreach activities that unite the entire community – schools, businesses, industries, and government – behind the workforce development initiative.

 

States Select Strategies

At the state level, where the funds will be spent, stakeholders must determine not just where to invest but also the processes necessary to ensure those investments pay off. Analyses of local, regional, and state-level economies will suggest where these processes might begin:

Addressing the most pressing community needs – food scarcity and lack of housing are often caused by insufficient or non-existent work opportunities;

Clarifying relevant stakeholders and their potential for collaboration;

Enhancing existing workforce development activities and practices, or

Filling existing workforce needs and gaps.

These are just four of the many challenges that can be remediated with BIL funds.

 

Enlisting Educators

At the heart of the workforce development project is the training facility. Schools designed to provide occupational and vocational education – including community colleges, technical schools, trade schools, etc. – have many options open to them that can be funded with IIJA dollars:

Staff upskilling and training – the pandemic demonstrated that today’s education tools are much more varied than books and paper.

Professional development – see above.

Incorporating internships into existing workflows.

Partnering with community members to facilitate apprenticeships.

Outreach to bring more invested parties into the conversation and the project.

The state governments that are tasked with allocating these funds can streamline their decision-making processes by creating and pursuing a goal set that builds on existing resources:

They can leverage current educational capacities by understanding what each program offers, tweaking it to fit needs better, or expanding it to serve more people.

They can use existing data in conjunction with emerging information and digital technologies to clarify precisely where demand lies and solutions might be found.

They might set up a governing body to oversee, from a 30,000′ level, the activities, outputs, outcomes, and results of IIJA investments. Interim reports can reveal where things are on target – or not.

Engage with their industrial community, especially the businesses and organizations that are already invested in the local community. Businesses thrive with well-trained employees, so business owners should have some influence on what it takes to create that human resource.

 

The IIJA is funding America’s renewed infrastructure framework by focusing its resources on the civic, social, and industrial opportunities that benefit the country as a whole. The ultimate goal of the endeavor is to enhance and bolster the nation’s workforce to ensure the economy has the labor it needs to maintain stability and add growth. Facilitating that process are the country’s middle-skill schools – the trades, unions, and community colleges – that are evolving into the workforce development hubs that America needs to achieve these ambitions.

 

 

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