Infrastructure Investment Creates Jobs -- For Everyone

File photo dated 09/07/10 of disruption on the A30 near Heathrow Airport in west London.
File photo dated 09/07/10 of disruption on the A30 near Heathrow Airport in west London.

By now it's apparent that we have to do something differently in order to spur our economy and create new jobs. Two things are also becoming clearer: First, while the private sector of our economy is slowly growing, public sector cutbacks have increased joblessness in recent months. The private sector will not be able to drive our recovery alone.

Secondly, in many areas of the country, people of color are experiencing significantly higher levels of unemployment than white people. In Minnesota, for example, the unemployment rate for blacks is more than triple the rate for whites -- and a gap remains even when controlling for education. A white worker with a high school diploma and a criminal record is more likely to be employed than a black worker with a college degree and no criminal record.

People of color will be the majority of our nation's workers within a few short decades. For our nation to remain economically competitive, our recovery strategy must specifically and intentionally create employment opportunities for communities of color. Our shared prosperity depends on it.

Our experience working on job creation in the Twin Cities over the past several years demonstrates that the tried and true job creation strategy of infrastructure investment has significant potential to address both the important role government can play in creating new jobs and the critical need to connect workers of color to good jobs. Minnesota has seen modest increases in infrastructure spending over the past several years, creating new jobs in the process. The Minnesota Department of Transportation employed 1,873 workers in 2009 compared to 3,200 in 2011, a 71 percent increase. At an average salary of more than $40,000, these are well paying jobs that can make a real difference for America's struggling families.

Construction jobs are also relatively accessible. Union apprenticeships and workforce training programs abound to prepare skilled laborers for the workforce. These programs have not always served people of color well, but we have made recent inroads in Minnesota by forging new partnerships and obtaining better transparency around existing state and federal minority hiring efforts. Under the watchful eye of community leaders such as the HIRE Minnesota coalition, the Minnesota Department of Transportation has increased the number of people of color hired to build our state's roads, bridges and transitways by more than 138 percent since 2009.

Many stakeholders in Minnesota -- not only community leaders, but policymakers, philanthropic institutions and business leaders -- have been calling for a more intentional strategy to both create jobs and close our racial employment gaps. Excellent outcomes on large-scale projects show that there are enough trained people of color waiting on the bench to make public investment in construction a successful strategy. The Twin Cities' Central Corridor light rail project is a great example. The Metropolitan Council, the Twin Cities' regional planning agency, recently announced that both major contractors building the $1 billion transitway are meeting their 18 percent hiring goals for people of color. And after the tragic I-35W bridge collapse, which demonstrated the tremendous cost of failure to invest in our decaying infrastructure, the prime contractor responsible for rebuilding its replacement exceeded the Minnesota Department of Transportation's minority hiring goal.

Investment in public works projects makes our roads and bridges safer, it provides more transportation choices for our growing metropolitan regions and it creates jobs that are bringing billions of dollars of income to around 5.5 million construction workers nationwide this year alone. As Minnesota's late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone once said, "We all do better when we all do better." Investing in proven job creation strategies with clear paths to reducing racial disparities will help put America back on the path to prosperity.

HIRE Minnesota is a coalition of organizations and activists working together to end employment disparities in Minnesota.