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Beyond building bridges, report finds infrastructure money potential boon for region’s workforce

The Downtown Pittsburgh skyline viewed from the Andy Warhol Bridge.
Patrick Doyle
90.5 WESA
The federal government unleashed more than a trillion dollars of spending toward building and repairing the nation’s infrastructure through the Infrastructure and Jobs Act of 2021, the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022.

Historic federal spending on infrastructure has ushered in a new wave of economic development in the Pittsburgh region beyond repairing our tattered bridges. A new report by ReImagine Appalachia, a policy group focused on sustainable economic development in the Ohio Valley region, examines how these investments are being used to restore the region's natural resources while training and employing a disconnected workforce. The report also offers guidance on how those funds can be best put to use.

The federal government unleashed more than a trillion dollars of spending toward building and repairing the nation’s infrastructure through the Infrastructure and Jobs Act of 2021, the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022. But not all of these investments are focused on repairing potholes and expanding highways.

“We have lots of infrastructure investments for roads and bridges,” said Rika Rothenstein, a senior research associate at ReImagine Appalachia and co-author of the report. “But the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act really put an emphasis on mitigating climate change — to try to put money forward for projects that do help with natural infrastructure restoration and enhancement.”

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These funds tackle some of the region’s most persistent natural infrastructure issues, such as cleaning up and remediating the region’s abandoned mine lands. Pennsylvania is home to more than 5,000 abandoned mine lands, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law set aside $244 million to address the problem, which the report estimates needs $5 billion to solve in Pennsylvania, alone.

The report’s authors say the investments also mean a lot of job opportunities for years to come.

“Investing in natural infrastructure restoration projects is a benefit for the environment and for the economy,” Rothenstein said. “It's not an either/or. It's not a zero-sum game. It's mutually beneficial.”

Seeding a workforce

Workers will be needed to meet the demand for the estimated 3 million new jobs a year in clean energy, manufacturing and other related industries, according to a report from the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. And if steps aren’t taken to recruit and train new workers into these fields, employers across the U.S. could find themselves 1.1 million workers short, the PERI report predicts.

The infrastructure law, in particular, allows state agencies flexibility in using funds for workforce development.

Successful workforce development programs that bring in disconnected workers, train and connect them to family-sustaining careers already exist in Pittsburgh. The Trade Institute of Pittsburgh is a Homewood-based nonprofit that teaches masonry and carpentry skills. In addition to its training programs, It also provides tailored supportive services to people experiencing barriers to employment, such as a criminal background or chronic unemployment. Its holistic approach is held up as a model of how to bridge barriers by the ReImagine Appalachia report.

Landforce, another nonprofit that works to help people overcome employment barriers, focuses their training on environmental skills necessary to do paid work for Landforce clients. Crew members work to restore habitats, install garden beds and improve vacant lots for clients ranging from the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy or the Pittsburgh Housing Authority. And they have gone on to careers in areas such as public works and tree care.

Recent federal investment has allowed Landforce to double in size. Recruitment for the next cohort begins in June. “We will then be able to do twice as much environmental stewardship work because of the federal input of dollars,” said Ilyssa Manspeizer, executive director of Landforce.

Part of that work will be providing labor for Tree Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Canopy Alliance’s $8 million project to expand Pittsburgh’s tree canopy. Landforce will be responsible both for planting the trees and keeping them pruned — keeping crew workers employed year-round.

“We have all been abuzz with the vast amount of federal dollars that are becoming available to go into the environment and help us do the work that we've been doing to provide clean air, clean water, clean soil, and improve the lives of everybody in and around Pittsburgh,” Manspeizer said.

Rothenstein with Reimagine Appalachia suggests that federal funds should be used to expand workforce programs like Landforce.

Additional support could come from President Biden’s proposed $8 billion expansion of the American Climate Corps. The initiative seeks to train people in land restoration and conservation, such as wetland restoration to mitigate flooding as well as for jobs installing clean energy systems, such as solar cells.