Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Infrastructure Labor Market

By Mark Knold, Supervising Economist, and Lecia Parks Langston, Senior Economist

The labor force is made up of people. People vary in every conceivable way. One person is artistic while another can only draw stick people. One person might be able to disassemble and reassemble a car engine while another might not know what an alternator is. We are different. We have different aptitudes and abilities.

Parallel to this variability, jobs are different. High levels of education do make it possible to work in high-skill occupations that return high incomes. But not everyone is cut out for higher education or has the means to obtain higher education. Therefore, they might end up in “lesser” or “unimportant” jobs.

But is that accurate? Are their job options inferior and unimportant? A recent Brookings Institution report brings to light a segment of the economy that is highly important yet is dependent upon the labor force that may not be built for, have the economic means, or desire to attain a college degree or higher.

Brookings identifies a niche they call the infrastructure economy. As Brookings notes, “Infrastructure helps facilitate the exchange of information, drive production, and deliver resources, spanning multiple sectors of the economy and serving as a foundation to long-term growth.” It goes further to note that “Infrastructure jobs depend on a steady stream of talent to construct, operate, design, and govern the country’s major physical assets.”

Brookings also documents why these infrastructure jobs can appeal to the individual. “Infrastructure occupations also boast competitive wages with relatively low barriers to entry, frequently paying up to 30 percent more to workers with a high school diploma or less compared to those in all other occupations. Plumbers, truck mechanics, and power line installers are among the numerous infrastructure occupations that fall into this category, which tend to emphasize on-the-job training rather than higher levels of formal education.”

Brookings identified 95 occupations that support the infrastructure foundation. Their work was well founded and designed. This intrigued us to develop a profile of said infrastructure configuration for the Utah economy. We could not replicate the Brookings work in terms of finalizing upon infrastructure industries, but we could place our focus instead upon all infrastructure occupations.

Infrastructure occupations do not have to be found in only infrastructure industries. A helicopter pilot, an infrastructure occupation, may fly a medical helicopter for a hospital, even though said hospital is not categorized as an infrastructure industry.

What is important is that there are occupations that Brookings has identified as key occupations that help to keep the economy operating, growing, designed, and governed. And a practical appeal is that many of these jobs offer low barriers to entry while supplying competitive wages.

Across the nation, these occupations number 11.9 million, or 8.8 percent of all occupational employment. In Utah, these jobs number around 121,400, also 8.8 percent of all occupational employment. Again, the appeal of these jobs is not just that they fundamentally support so many other jobs and industries in the economy, but that these jobs don’t require a high level of education or formalized training for entry. Oftentimes these occupations emphasize only on-the-job training. Yet, these jobs pay on average 22 percent higher in Utah than other occupations that are willing to accept only a high school diploma or less.

Utah does have its unique structuring across its different geographic regions, and this will include the possibility of a different profile of the infrastructure economy in each local region. The following is an infrastructure profile for the Central Utah region.

Central Utah 

Infrastructure jobs play a major role in the Central Utah economy providing better wages than other positions requiring similar education and training. 

Central Utah (Millard, Piute, Sanpete, Sevier and Wayne counties) is home to roughly 3,000 infrastructure jobs, a striking 13 percent of total employment. With this high share of employment, the area’s infrastructure location quotient is 1.4 compared to 1.0 statewide. Location quotients quantify the regional concentration of this occupational group compared to the nation. In this case, Central Utah infrastructure employment accounts for a share 40 percent greater than the national average. A large number of heavy/tractor-trailer drivers in the area are largely responsible for Central Utah’s high infrastructure location quotient.


In Central Utah, infrastructure jobs requiring less than a Bachelor’s degree pay roughly 40 percent more than similar jobs in the overall Central Utah economy. Many of the highest-paying infrastructure occupations require just a high school education (plus on-the-job training).

Education and Training 

About 97 percent of Central Utah’s infrastructure jobs typically require less than a Bachelor’s degree. The major role played by heavy/tractor-trailer drivers in the region contributes to the large share of infrastructure jobs with a post-secondary non-degree award (40 percent). Most infrastructure jobs require little on-the-job training. More than three-fourths of the jobs are in occupations calling for on-the-job training of a month or less.

Again, a preponderance of heavy truck driver employment dominates the activities of the area’s infrastructure employment. Almost 80 percent of infrastructure employment is involved in operating activities. Construction-related activities account for the next largest share at 12 percent.

Looking Forward 

Over the next decade, infrastructure employment in Central Utah is projected to grow at a slightly slower rate (9 percent) than overall employment (11 percent). However, there is a significant need for replacements in this occupational group. While infrastructure jobs are expected to account for roughly 10 percent of openings due to growth, they should generate 15 percent of replacement openings.