Transportation Policy: An Opportunity to Put More Black Men into Good Jobs
By Kisha Bird
"We need transformational policy reform in the transportation field in order to support good community jobs, access to jobs, and quality of life" - Anita M. Hairston, Senior Associate for Transportation Policy, PolicyLink
Transportation in America -- it represents our highways and our roads, our trains and our railroads, buses and trucks. Transportation -- it's how we get from point A to point B - to work, school, doctors' appointments and weekend baseball and football games. Transportation in America is public transit, too - it's SEPTA in Philadelphia, BART in the San Francisco Bay Area, MTA in New York City and WMATA in Washington, DC. It is as American as apple pie and essential to the connectivity of communities and the nation. I am reminded of this everyday as I commute to and from work on the X2 bus in Washington, DC. On the X2, which travels across the District from Ward 7 to Ward 1 from Minnesota Avenue to the White House, I see a diverse intersection of residents and riders. I am also struck by the number of non-white bus operators that greet me daily and transport me safely to my destination. And while I've never really considered why this was the case, my limited and anecdotal observations were reinforced at a recent congressional briefing hosted by the Economic Policy Institute on September 26, 2012, Transporting Black Men to Good Jobs: Transportation Infrastructure, Transportation Jobs, and Public Transit.
The briefing addressed both a timely and relevant topic aligned with CLASP's Youth Policy agenda - What is the potential of the transportation sector to deliver young men to futures of economic promise? How can industry sectors provide good jobs, good wages, and opportunity for advancement? What is the role that community must play in assembling the systems, funding, and resources to create pathways for young men? And what is the federal role in building community capacity? The briefing featured CLASP's Director of Youth Policy, Linda Harris, as moderator and several other experts in the field:
- Algernon Austin, Director of the Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy at Economic Policy Institute
- Jeff Brooks, Administrative Vice President and Director of the Transit Division at Transport Workers Union of America
- Anita M. Hairston, Senior Associate for Transportation Policy at PolicyLink
- Michelle Holder, Senior Labor Market Analyst at Community Service Society of New York
- Brian Turner, Executive Director at Transportation Learning Center
Algernon Austin and Michelle Holder provided sobering statistics that are all too familiar - while unemployment has remained high for the nation it is 15 percent for black men, down just 3 percentage points from this time last year. In New York City for example, unemployment for black men went from an unacceptable rate of 9 percent in 2006 at the start of the recession to an intolerable rate of 18 percent in 2009. Despite the long-term trend of low black male employment and its exacerbation during the Great Recession, Austin offered a labor market analysis that holds promise. Unlike the manufacturing and construction sectors where black men are substantially underrepresented, the transportation sector -- where black men are overrepresented -- has provided them with access to good jobs with decent wages. Thus investments in transportation would not only upgrade our physical infrastructure but would greatly enhance opportunity for black men to access goods with career potential. Transportation projects provide both direct and indirect employment options and can fuel support and supply jobs as well. For public transit in particular, black men get a significant share of jobs -- and jobs that often come with stable wages. This made me think back to all those bus drivers I referred to earlier who transport me to and from work every day.
In the midst of a gloomy economic and labor market outlook for black men, the transportation sector represents a unique leveraging opportunity and should be expanded. First, America's infrastructure is in desperate need of rebuilding and repair. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, in 2009 the nation had poor to and severe infrastructure needs - roads, bridges, highways, and public transit - and not much has changed since then. Second, there is fast job growth in this sector, especially in public transit. The U.S. Department of Labor projects 38 percent job growth over the next ten years. And up to 40 percent of the transit frontline workforce is expected to retire within 10 years. Despite these imminent trends, the transportation field is ill-equipped to fill these jobs. In the public transportation sector, less than 1 percent of payroll is spent on investments in training and human capital as compared to 4.5 percent of leading US companies. And while African Americans may account for a significant percentage of the transportation workforce, they have less access to careers with upward mobility and high wages.
A nearly 80 percent job growth over the next decade due to expansion and retirement certainly calls for transformational policy reform regarding human capital development in the transportation sector. It also presents an opportunity to greatly expand access for black men not just to the entry level jobs but to pathways that prepare them for the technical, professional, management, and skilled jobs that accompany expanded investment in transportation infrastructure.
The panelists offered several stimulating opportunities that can be implemented at the national, state, and local levels, including:
- Investing in career pathway partnerships that are developed and implemented by local school districts, unions, public transit organizations, and community training partners. These pipelines provide an on-ramp to a wide variety of careers for nontraditional populations and include strategies such as internships, apprenticeships, and other hands-on learning opportunities for youth and young adults from middle school through and beyond high school. This strategy must go beyond the traditional career pathways approach and intentionally link young black men to career ladders with ongoing training and education. As Jeff Brooks at Transport Workers Union of America stated, we must "make the pipeline the standard not the exception"
- Investing in Infrastructure Banks. This is a bi-partisan policy idea supported by both business and labor to spur public and private financing of construction projects to rebuild things like roads, bridges, water systems and power grids.
- Instituting local and targeted hiring provisions and advancing strategies that allow for and require transportation projects to hire a particular threshold of community members or target particular underrepresented populations groups, such as black men. Provisions such as the Section 3 requirement in Housing and Urban Development would provide a starting framework for such provisions.
Advancing federal transportation policy that concurrently strengthens our transportation infrastructure, enhances the quality and efficiency of our public transportation system, and serves as a portal to good jobs and solid careers is a winning strategy that holds promise. That promise may begin, for example with my bus driver, but given the scale of the pending workforce need and given appropriate investment, could undoubtedly result in the economic revitalization of communities and the transformation of the transportation industry.