Transporting black men to good jobs

On Sept. 26, the Economic Policy Institute sponsored a Congressional Briefing on how transportation infrastructure, transportation jobs, and public transit can provide good jobs for black men. This is a brief summary and discussion of key points of the presentations. Links to presentation materials can be found at the end of this post.

African American men have the highest unemployment rate by race and gender. So far in 2012, the black male unemployment rate has averaged 15 percent. This is the overall national rate, but in some metropolitan areas the black male unemployment rate has been even higher.

The figure shows the average metropolitan unemployment rates for non-Hispanic black and white males since the technical end of the recession in June 2009. From July 2009 to May 2012, in many of the nation’s largest metro areas, the black male unemployment rate has averaged close to or above 20 percent. Much needs to be done to end the “economic depression” black men are facing. Transportation investments provide one promising avenue for improving the employment situation of black men.

Transportation infrastructure

Although African American men are underrepresented in the construction industry, they do hold jobs in construction and lost jobs when the industry took a hit during the recession. Roughly one-quarter of the decline in employment for black men from 2007 to 2011 was due to their loss of jobs in construction. Investing in transportation infrastructure is a good mechanism to improve labor market conditions for black male construction workers.

EPI estimates that African Americans could obtain as much as 14 percent of all jobs created by large public transit investment projects.1 Blacks are only about 11 percent of the labor force, so these projects bring a slightly disproportionate benefit to black workers. About three-quarters of the jobs created from infrastructure investments go to males, and most of the jobs pay medium-to-high wages. Projects such as addressing the backlog of repair work in all of our public transit systems would bring a tremendous benefit to the nation as a whole and provide opportunities for blacks to obtain about 160,000 jobs.2

African Americans could gain an even larger share of the jobs from transportation infrastructure projects if they were designed with local-hire provisions, and if there were stronger commitments to include minority businesses as recommended by PolicyLink. PolicyLink lifts up the Gamaliel Foundation’s “Missouri Model” as an example. The Missouri Model, as Anita Hairston of PolicyLink detailed, “used apprentice programs, project labor agreements, and contractor incentives in the reconstruction of several bridges, interchanges, and highway lanes on Interstate 64 in St. Louis, Missouri. 27 percent of work hours were completed, performed by people of color and women.”

The transportation industry

Transportation infrastructure projects also help to grow the transportation industry. The transportation industry is one of the few industries where black men are overrepresented. The Community Service Society of New York reports that in New York City, for example, although 8.5 percent of all men work in transportation, 15.5 percent of black men are employed in this sector. Thus, expanding this sector would likely expand black mens’ employment opportunities in relatively good-paying jobs.

The Transportation Learning Center notes that the transportation industry is projected to grow significantly in the coming years while experiencing a great number of retirements. This presents a great opportunity for increasing the employment of black men in good jobs. But it must be noted that although black men are overrepresented in transportation, they are still underrepresented in the more highly-skilled and higher-paying technical and repair positions.

The Transportation Leaning Center has been working with unions to establish apprenticeships and career ladders to bring blacks into transportation and into the more highly-skilled positions. However, the Center points out that given the magnitude of the coming wave of retirements, the transportation industry needs significantly greater investments in human capital development.

Public transit

While African Americans benefit from all types of transportation infrastructure investments, it seems that public transit infrastructure investments deliver the biggest jobs benefits for blacks. In the analyses that EPI has conducted of infrastructure projects, public transit infrastructure projects produce a greater share of African American jobs than projects that are more focused on highways, freight rail, and even the “green economy.”

After public transit systems are built, they need workers to operate and maintain them. This is a second jobs benefit for African Americans from public transit infrastructure investments. As the Community Service Society of New York and Transportation Leaning Center have highlighted, public transit systems have historically provided good jobs for blacks, and particularly for black men. However, as both of these organizations note, blacks are still underrepresented in the more highly-paid positions.

Public transit systems deliver a third jobs benefit to African Americans. African Americans have the lowest rate of car ownership by race.3 As our metropolitan areas have become more sprawling, more jobs have become geographically inaccessible to blacks. Good public transportation systems can improve African Americans’ employment opportunities by increasing their access to jobs. For these three reasons, public transit investments are an important part of a good jobs agenda for blacks, and particularly for black men.

Presentation materials


Linda Harris, Director of Youth Policy, CLASP:  Remarks


Algernon Austin, Director of the Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy, Economic Policy InstituteNotes


Michelle Holder, Senior Labor Market Analyst, Community Service Society of New YorkSlides | Notes

Anita M. Hairston, Senior Associate for Transportation Policy, PolicyLinkNotes

Brian Turner, Executive Director, Transportation Learning CenterSlides

Jeff Brooks, Administrative Vice President and Director of the Transit Division, Transport Workers Union of America


1. Josh Bivens and Ethan Pollack, “The labor market impact of targeted investments in transportation infrastructure—An analysis of Transportation for America’s Jobs Proposals,” EPI Issue Brief #271 (Washington D.C.: Economic Policy Institute, 2010), p. 8;

2. Ethan Pollack and Rebecca Thiess, “Impact of alternate public transit and rail investment scenarios on the labor market,” EPI Issue Brief #285 (Washington D.C.: Economic Policy Institute, 2010); EPI’s revised estimate for the transit backlog repair plan is that it would create about 160,000 jobs for blacks.

3. U.S. Census Bureau, “Table 2. Asset Ownership Rates for Households, by Selected Characteristics: 2010,” Detailed Tables on Wealth and Asset Ownership (Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce, 2012);