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California's middle-class job of the future: Road worker

Rio Hondo bridge Caltrans

The state legislature's approval of a massive infrastructure plan Thursday night promises a $50 billion investment in road and bridge repair over the next 10 years. That money is expected to drive a surge in the demand for construction workers and apprentices in California.

The work will be funded primarily through a tax on gasoline and diesel fuel. Gov. Jerry Brown's office points to a 2011 formula devised by the White House Council of Economic Advisers to estimate it will create about 65,000 jobs each year, many with middle-class employment, an area where the state has struggled to grow.

The workers in demand will be carpenters, cement masons, laborers, operating engineers and ironworkers, said Tom Holsman, CEO of the Association of General Contractors of California.

"Those are the ones that will be most impacted, and at present they’ve all been geared up for some time to accommodate the demand," he said. "I think we are well-situated for the workload that will follow this revenue stream."

Construction companies that get public works contracts in California are required to pay their employees what's known as a "prevailing wage." That's made infrastructure work a solid middle-class career track that's attracting young people who aren't seeking four-year degrees.

Some bridge and road workers can make $60,000-70,000 per year, said Larry Frank, executive director of California Trade-Tech College in Los Angeles, which trains young people looking for jobs in construction trades.

"It's a job where you can raise a family, and it's not just a job," he said. "It is a career."

That was a tough pitch for Frank to make during the recession, when apprentices weren't getting work. In addition, high schools often tout college as the primary source of good jobs.

But, Frank said, that's changed over the years, as more commercial, high rise and public works projects have taken off across Southern California. More young people are learning through word-of-mouth  about the better wages in construction. The infrastructure bill's passage now means 10 years of job security in infrastructure.

Companies are looking for young blood, he said.

"We’ve always done our best to reach out to the industry and to our partners in the building trades, but right now, the industry and the building trades are reaching out to us," Frank said. "It's a really euphoric moment ... It’s really starting to pay off," he said.

"The challenge is informing young people that this is a great career prospect," said Tim Rainey, executive director of the California Workforce Development Board, a state agency.

Rainey agrees it's gotten easier over the past few years, and the state has put more resources into recruiting high school graduates into technical programs.

"The K-12 schools and community colleges and even the [California State University system] have really been shifting to a greater emphasis on careers in technical education and exposing young people to jobs and careers that don’t require a bachelor's degree," he said.

Under California law, apprentices must comprise 20 percent of the workforce on public works projects, to ensure a steady supply of skilled construction workers.

So as construction companies hire more workers, they will in turn hire more apprentices, creating a wider pipeline for high school graduates and people from disadvantaged communities, said Rainey.