Limited workforce may hinder California’s infrastructure upgrade

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After decades of neglect, California’s infrastructure is poised for an upgrade.

Thanks in part to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed by President Biden in November 2021, the Golden State is set to receive more than $100 billion in federal and state infrastructure funds over the next several years.

This money represents a “once-in-a-generation opportunity,” according to Gov. Gavin Newsom, to install and/or update a litany of critical systems serving Californians, including:

  • A network of charging stations for electric vehicles;
  • Broadband internet service;
  • Replacement roads and bridges, designed to mitigate climate change;
  • Protections against cyberattacks, wildfires and extreme weather events;
  • Improved public transportation options;
  • Better service lines and pipes for clean drinking water; and
  • Airport upgrades.

“We have a remarkable opportunity to improve California’s infrastructure planning and delivery–and to make sure infrastructure projects are built better, faster and with greater transparency,” said Micah Weinberg, CEO of CA FWD, in a recent press release touting the organization’s new report on maximizing the state’s infrastructure dollars.

But there’s a problem, according to the CA FWD report: this new funding is expected to generate 400,000 construction jobs – jobs the current California workforce can’t fill.

“In order to implement its infrastructure program,” CA FWD says bluntly, “California will need to develop its infrastructure workforce.” That won’t be easy.

Among several obstacles, the report notes that “restrictive job requirements” for some projects limit the potential labor pool while stakeholders within state government, industry and education often fail to coordinate their efforts to meet California’s growing and changing workforce demands.

Transportation projects in particular face labor shortages, the report said.

“It’s a great question. I don’t have the answer,” said Steve Douglas, vice president of Energy & Environment for the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, when asked what California should do about its infrastructure workforce at Capitol Weekly’s recent conference ROADMAP 2035: Cars, Carbon and Climate Change – How Do We Meet California’s Zero Emissions Goals?

“It comes up in other states as well as California that I work in, where it’s like, ‘OK, how do we get this workforce? How do we get them trained? How do we get them in place?’” Douglas added.

 It was Douglas, actually, who brought up the labor pool issues on his panel, The Technology: How We Get There, with Jacquelyn Birdsall, a senior engineer in the Fuel Cell Development Department of Toyota; Quentin Gee, acting manager of advanced electrification analysis for the California Energy Commission; and Orville Thomas, state policy director for CALSTART, a nonprofit consortium dedicated to a speeding up society’s transition to clean transportation with offices in Pasadena, New York, Michigan, Colorado and central Europe

OK, how do we get this workforce? How do we get them trained? How do we get them in place?

“There’s a lot of shortages,” he said in response to a question about how the adoption of electric vehicles will impact the workforce. “Like, who’s going to put in all these chargers? Do we have enough electricians to install chargers at home, install these DC fast chargers – install chargers at the airport where we have like 10 chargers in the parking lot at the airport now? Is that enough? Who’s going to put them in?”

Thomas of CALSTART said he believes the answer “is not just exclusive to zero-emission vehicles,” but encompasses the role of education in California and how that fits with the trades, including laborers, operating engineers and carpenters.

“I think for generations, education has kind of filtered people into four-year degrees being a must,” he said. “And we are starting to see that whole recalculation a bit, especially starting at grade-school level and introducing STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] and STEAM [Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Math] and all these programs and saying that these trades jobs are viable opportunities to make a great living, provide a great middle-class income and benefits and lifetime jobs that are often generational.

“And so I think the state is looking at that as how to revitalize community colleges, how to start thinking through where the trades can be reintroduced into that and this, as Steve talked about, is a real opportunity for reshuffling and zero-emission vehicle industry and the economy shouldn’t leave anyone behind.”

As the CA FWD report and the discussion at the Capitol Weekly conference make clear, there’s still quite a lot of work that needs to be done to ready California’s workforce to build out the state’s infrastructure. And, as Douglas of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation noted, the clock is ticking, at least with the state’s looming zero-emission goals.

“We just don’t have a lot of time,” he said. “So acting now, getting those people trained, identifying them – and these are pretty solid jobs as well.”

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