New Orleans ranks 12th among U.S. cities for infrastructure jobs, report finds

Workers operating refineries, engineering bridges, hauling containers and performing other labor focused on the nation’s infrastructure make up nearly 13 percent of the New Orleans metro area workforce, one of the highest rates of infrastructure jobs in the country, according to a report released Friday.

In total, infrastructure jobs — defined as supporting the nation’s assets in energy, trade, transportation, public works and other sectors — make up 11 percent of the U.S. workforce, more than previously thought, according to the report from The Brookings Institution.

Over the next decade, infrastructure jobs will grow by more than 9 percent, the report said, and 2.7 million workers will be needed to fill open positions from turnover and aging workers retiring.

Researchers with Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program took stock of the nation’s infrastructure jobs, defining 95 occupations in 42 industries from civil engineers and urban planners to river pilots and and petroleum pump operators, calling it the first report of its kind.

Infrastructure work employs 14.2 million people nationwide, including 62,850 in the New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner metro area, according to the report.

Among the 100 largest cities, the New Orleans area ranked 12th in percentage of infrastructure jobs in the total workforce at 12.8 percent, driven by energy and utility industries, the report said.

By the same measure, Baton Rouge ranked 15th at 12.6 percent of the local workforce based on similar trends.

Joseph Kane, a Brookings researcher, said the idea of infrastructure often involves abstract generalizations, limited to short-term, shovel-ready construction jobs, such as the highway and bridge construction federally funded during the economic crisis through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

But the report took a broader approach looking at intra-metro transportation, inter-metro transportation, trade and logistics, energy, water, telecommunications and public works sectors. More than three-quarters of the jobs involved operations infrastructure, the report found. The construction and design played smaller roles.

Share rank/Metro area Metro Infrastructure Employment Metro Total Employment Metro Infrastructure Share
1. Memphis, TN-MS-AR 99,140 557,810 17.8%
2. Lakeland-Winter Haven, FL 24,830 168,200 14.8%
3. Stockton, CA 26,490 182,080 14.5%
4. Harrisburg-Carlisle, PA 41,360 291,690 14.2%
5. Chattanooga, TN-GA 29,270 211,710 13.8%
6. Scranton–Wilkes-Barre, PA 32,450 235,410 13.8%
7. Louisville-Jefferson County, KY-IN 77,980 574,520 13.6%
8. Greensboro-High Point, NC 44,350 331,240 13.4%
9. Indianapolis-Carmel, IN 114,890 859,770 13.4%
10. Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA 148,680 1,127,560 13.2%
11. Omaha-Council Bluffs, NE-IA 56,320 435,720 12.9%
12. New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner 62,850 490,780 12.8%
13. Modesto, CA 17,510 138,250 12.7%
14. Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA 278,650 2,208,570 12.6%
15. Baton Rouge 43,260 344,510 12.6%
16. Lancaster, PA 26,290 209,810 12.5%
17. Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX 317,300 2,547,540 12.5%
18. Knoxville, TN 38,390 311,800 12.3%
19. Bakersfield-Delano, CA 31,400 258,750 12.1%
20. Jacksonville, FL 66,650 551,320 12.1%

Material movers, truck drivers and electricians together make up the largest share at nearly one-third of all infrastructure jobs.

Infrastructure jobs also offer higher wages, paying 30 percent more to workers at lower ends of the income scale, according to the report.

“Not only do these infrastructure jobs pay more but only 12 percent of infrastructure workers actually hold a bachelor’s degree or higher,” Kane said. “The formal education needed to enter those jobs is fairly low.” About 80 percent of workers learned with on-the-job training.

In New Orleans, the median hourly wage is $19.24 and the medial annual salary is $40,020, according to Brookings’ data.

The report provides further evidence for an ongoing conversation in the local business community: growing concerns over having enough workers in Louisiana to fill new jobs being created in the energy, digital and transportation sectors.

“For quite some time, in economic development, there was a focus on bringing jobs to the area, and I think now, we’re at a point in which we have to pivot slightly and make sure we’re working also on bringing the workforce to the area, and at the very least, making sure our locals have the opportunities to fill those roles,” Jerry Bologna, Jefferson Parish Economic Development Commission executive director, said.

In a 2013 report, the Louisiana Workforce Commission found that an additional 83,600 skilled craft workers will be needed to construct $60 billion in new plants and plant expansions statewide.

In a 70-mile stretch along the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, $21 billion in energy related investments in petrochemicals, advanced manufacturing, and energy will create 42,000 job openings over the next seven years, according to a January report by The Data Center in New Orleans.

Michael Hecht, CEO and president of economic development group Greater New Orleans Inc., said much of the attention in workforce growth has focused on new industries, such as the biomedical and digital sectors.

But the report illustrates that the foundational industries for New Orleans are largely based in infrastructure, providing a vast number of jobs, he said.

Billions of dollars in infrastructure investments in post-Hurricane Katrina rebuilding and, more recently, investments in the natural gas boom contributed to job growth.

Looking ahead, coastal restoration and stabilization work will create new jobs, he said.

“We see a theme of large infrastructure projects in the recent past, present and future in south Louisiana,” Hecht said.

Hecht said two factors are converging to put strain on the workforce: a surging demand and an aging, soon-to-retire group of workers. The region must ramp up training at its two-year schools, he said.

Hunter Arnold, Waggoner Engineering vice president of business development, said his company, which operates in Mississippi and Louisiana including a New Orleans office, is focused on public infrastructure such as roads. Post-Katrina jobs powered expansion in his company in recent years. But such spending has tapered off as the federal government limits funding local capital projects, he said.

Even so, Arnold said, his firm of 95 employees has hired new employees in the past six months. In the future, the company anticipates opportunities in coastal restoration and pent-up demand for improved roads, wastewater systems, and bridges.

“I think the public is starting to pay more attention to those things,” Arnold said. “They’re more aware of that, and they’re expecting the local and state and federal agencies to be on top of that. That’s kind of the threshold now, the expectation that those things are going to be addressed.”

The report doesn’t make specific policy recommendations, but it said that as the U.S. economy continues to recover from the recession, policymakers should think more broadly about what infrastructure means.

“Although construction workers play a pivotal role building and maintaining infrastructure, this report shows they only compose a fraction of the entire workforce responsible for managing the nation’s physical assets,” the report says. “To help promote trade, move more passengers, ensure the efficient use of energy and water and carry out other infrastructure related activities, it is essential to gain a firmer understanding of the employment opportunities behind these investments.”

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