K-12 schools are critical for preparing the workforce needed to successfully rebuild America’s infrastructure, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and expand high-tech education. In particular, foundational math, science, technology, and computer skills are a necessary prerequisite for the higher-paying construction, green energy, and infrastructure-related jobs that can serve as a pathway to growing the middle class. Yet K-12 schools are not as frequently discussed in the context of implementation of the Biden-Harris administration’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), also known as the bipartisan infrastructure law, Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), and CHIPS and Science Act (CHIPS), despite the administration’s stated goal of equitable workforce development in IIJA implementation.1
This issue brief outlines why state and local governments must coordinate with K-12 schools in order for the implementation of this historic legislation to be as effective and equitable as possible. These schools can serve as valuable partners in apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs; career and technical education; and dual-enrollment programs that provide training for the emerging and growing industries funded by these three laws.
K-12 and IIJA implementation: Preparing students for high-paying construction jobs
Because IIJA funding is available only for the next five to 10 years, much of the emphasis on workforce development in the IIJA has focused on programs that provide on-the-job training through community colleges, workforce boards, unions, or employers. In other words, the target audience has been people who are already in the workforce or of working age. But with IIJA spending expected to extend through 2033,2 students who are currently only in seventh or eighth grade will eventually work on IIJA-funded construction projects after completing high school or a postsecondary program. When these students graduate, they too should be prepared to take advantage of opportunities for good, living-wage jobs in construction—which pays approximately 30 percent more to lower-income workers than other industries and often requires less formal education.3
The national trade association Associated Builders and Contractors estimates that in 2023—just as IIJA implementation ramps up—the construction industry will need to bring in nearly 590,000 new workers on top of normal hiring.4 And in the next 10 years, industry experts predict that more than 40 percent of the current construction workforce expects to retire.5 To meet these needs, there are several funding streams in the IIJA dedicated specifically to workforce training, such as the U.S. Department of Transportation’s On-the-Job Training program,6 the Energy Auditor Training Grant Program,7 and the Brownfields Program Job Training Grants.8 The law also contains provisions allowing various funding streams to be used for workforce development activities, such as some of the larger federal highway formula funds.9 The funding notices and websites for these grant programs mention eligible activities that might be carried out in collaboration with K-12 schools, such as career awareness and preparation, career pathways outreach programs, student internships, and pre-apprenticeship programs.
There is also the issue of the opportunity gap,10 or differences in the exposure and experiences that young people can access as a result of factors such as family and/or school economic resources, systemic racism, and educational quality.11 Right now, many municipalities are planning or starting major infrastructure projects with IIJA funds, but lacking the skilled workforce needed to carry out these projects successfully will be a limiting factor in many cities and regions.12 At its root, the opportunity gap is a reflection of systemic and chronic disinvestment in K-12 schools, particularly those that serve primarily students of color and students whose families are low income. Investing now in helping K-12 and other students develop the skills needed to succeed in construction and other infrastructure-related careers will provide opportunities to use these historic investments to grow the middle class.
Finally, to improve workforce equity and address worker shortages, the construction industry will need to address the lack of racial and gender diversity in many of its occupations, recruiting from a much wider labor pool than it has historically.13 This effort must start during the K-12 years, when students are not only learning the foundational skills they will need for the workforce but also beginning to explore their career interests and options.
K-12 and Inflation Reduction Act implementation: Preparing students for jobs in the green energy sector
While IIJA funding creates short- to medium-term opportunities, many of the tax credits and green energy provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act are designed to spur a long-term market shift toward climate-friendly businesses and services, especially in the green energy sector.14 This will involve both creating good jobs in emerging green industries and retraining the current workforce. K-12 schools have an important role to play in both preparing students for these green energy jobs and exposing students to varied career opportunities that will emerge as a result of this sector’s growth.
In addition, the Inflation Reduction Act’s environmental justice focus and the place-based nature of many of its programs will create opportunities for current K-12 students to be a part of efforts to revitalize their own communities. For example, making energy-efficient upgrades and installing clean energy technologies such as solar panels, battery storage, and microgrids can reduce instances of air pollution-related asthma in neighborhoods, reduce neighbors’ electric bills, or clean up local waterways to ensure the safety of their drinking water.
Like the construction industry, climate professionals and organizations are disproportionately white,15 which can lead to unforeseen obstacles16 and biases17 in how these organizations address climate change and environmental injustice in communities that are predominantly and historically Black or include other marginalized groups. Early exposure to emerging green career pathways in K-12 education will be an important part of diversifying the green energy sector and ensuring that communities most affected by climate change have a leading role in creating an equitable transition to green energy.
K-12 and CHIPS implementation: Expanding access to tech-sector jobs
One way of spurring interest and demand in fields such as technology and computer science is early and sustained exposure. Unfortunately, academic requirements have not yet caught up to the changing economy, and only five states require students to take computer science in K-12—although 27 states require schools to offer it.18 Moreover, it is estimated that less than 10 percent of K-12 students have had any formal engineering education.19
Any casual observer can see that technology’s role in our lives is expanding rapidly; in one way or another, most people rely on computers, smartphones, and computerized devices for nearly all day-to-day tasks. Yet disparities exist in who has access to technology,20 creating digital injustice21 and a digital divide;22 many institutions—including schools, employers, and government agencies—erroneously assume that everyone has these technologies readily available. Even when access is equal, inequity in how students are asked to use technology can affect their opportunities to improve digital literacy and better understand technology. Indeed, a meta-analysis of research on technology in education found that Black and Hispanic students, as well as those who are low income, were more likely to be assigned computers to use for drills-and-skills practice, while white and higher-income students were more often asked to use computers for authentic applications and simulations.23
Fortunately, CHIPS provides opportunities for more students from underserved communities to have access to jobs in the tech sector, a recognition that K-12 schools have an important role to play in expanding America’s semiconductor industry and the broader STEM sector. Specifically, CHIPS includes provisions to establish a STEM teacher corps, scale effective innovations in STEM education, and expand education and outreach programs for communities that are underrepresented in STEM fields.24
When students graduate from high school, CHIPS also provides funding for scholarships and fellowships for those studying in STEM fields as well as grants to institutions of higher education to attract and retain these students.25 This includes community colleges,26 which will be crucial for training, or re-training, students from diverse backgrounds for high-demand middle-skill jobs in STEM—many of which pay better than other job opportunities with similar education levels.27
Additional barriers to diversifying the technology sector workforce
It is worth noting that lack of access to technology and persistence through postsecondary education is not the only barrier to high-paying jobs in the tech sector. For example, only 10 percent of the technical computing workforce identifies as Black or Latino, even though these groups constitute more than 20 percent of computer science graduates.28 If not addressed, other factors, such as systemic racism in hiring and within companies, will continue to present barriers to increasing the number of diverse candidates in the field, even if the number of Black and Latino computer science graduates increases. This is one of the reasons why improving equity in high-paying, high-demand jobs requires strong policy structures and supports throughout the education and employment continuum.
To prioritize equity, opportunity, and access for K-12 students in the implementation of the IIJA, the Inflation Reduction Act, and CHIPS, state and local governments should:
- Recognize the role of excellent K-12 schools in creating jobs-ready communities and growing the middle class and invest in them accordingly. Investments in education strengthen local and regional economies and attract high-paying employers or spur development of homegrown industry hubs.29 A workforce that has received a quality K-12 education is a prerequisite for the job creation expected to happen as a result of the IIJA, Inflation Reduction Act, and CHIPS.30
- Include K-12 schools in planning and implementation of the workforce development provisions of the IIJA, Inflation Reduction Act, and CHIPS. In coordination with higher education and workforce development, K-12 schools can offer dual-enrollment programs; apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships; and high-quality career and technical education, using funding from the IIJA, Inflation Reduction Act, CHIPS, or other state and federal funds. State and local governments can look to the Biden administration’s Investing in America agenda31 to find examples of such initiatives and related grant opportunities.32
K-12 schools can also partner with higher education and workforce stakeholders to determine what graduating college and being career ready means—specific to regional needs and strengths—as industries such as construction, green energy, and high-tech manufacturing expand. This includes preparing today’s K-12 students to make shifts over the course of their career as new technology and industries emerge.
- Access K-12 funding streams to use as part of IIJA, Inflation Reduction Act, and CHIPS workforce development programs for K-12 students. Many federal K-12 funding streams can be used for the same activities as those outlined in the workforce development sections of these three laws. For example, Perkins funding for career and technical education in K-12 schools and community colleges could be shifted toward local emerging industries as implementation of these laws is fully underway.33 In addition, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program—which supports out-of-school learning time, such as after-school, before-school, and summer learning experiences for students and communities—could be used to provide supplemental STEM education, such as engineering, not typically offered during the regular school day or to offer experiential learning opportunities for growing or emerging career paths.34
- Update K-12 core curriculum requirements and offerings to better reflect today’s technology-driven society. Preparing students for the workforce is not the only purpose of primary and secondary education, but it is an important one. Outdated state curriculum requirements mean that only the most affluent students attending well-resourced K-12 schools have access to coursework in computer science, technology, and engineering—even though these fields have been a source of high-paying, high-demand jobs for The need for updated curriculum requirements is particularly urgent, as recent data have shown that the majority of new jobs require digital skills35 and that green technology jobs, such as wind turbine technicians and solar photovoltaic installers, are some of the fastest-growing occupations in the nation.36
STEM coursework, including engineering and computer science, should begin in the primary grades; be sustained throughout the elementary and middle school years; and be required in high school. Furthermore, states and districts should work to expand high-quality career and technical education offerings in growing fields such as green energy technology, construction trades and technologists, and technology jobs that do not require a four-year degree—in particular for industries that are predominant in the regional economy.
- Use IIJA, Inflation Reduction Act, and CHIPS funds to increase the racial and gender diversity of industries that have traditionally skewed white and/or male. Because role models from underrepresented groups influence students’ career awareness and aspirations,37 being intentional about using the workforce development funding streams in these three laws to increase diversity can have positive ripple effects for the future workforce. However, this will require reducing barriers and bias at all levels of the pipeline, going well beyond financial incentives for education and training. Eliminating bias in hiring practices and company policies and practices and making a strong and meaningful commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, for example, are critical steps toward creating a welcoming environment for all workers and improving retention of underrepresented workers.
Most students begin to develop career interests and inclinations during the K-12 years. Students who see themselves represented in fields such as green energy or who know someone who works at a semiconductor manufacturing plant might develop a new interest in similar jobs as well as a better understanding of what these jobs entail. The same is true for students’ role models in K-12 classrooms: Studies have found that when Black and Latino students are taught by a teacher of the same race or ethnicity, their interest38 and success39 in school increase. For this reason, it is critical to double down on efforts to recruit and retain a racially diverse teacher workforce, especially in STEM fields and career and technical education.
State and local governments must take advantage of the critical opportunity presented by the IIJA, Inflation Reduction Act, and CHIPS to grow the middle class, especially by expanding access for those who have historically been excluded. The new projects, markets, and jobs created by these laws will hopefully transform the economy for generations to come. To expand pathways to the middle class, meet the equity goals set forth by the Biden administration, and ensure effective implementation, K-12 education must have a seat at the table.