Infrastructure crisis looms: It’s not just roads that are aging

Fri, 2014-11-21 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

A new report, Infrastructure Crisis, Sustainable Solutions: Rethinking Our Infrastructure Investment Strategies, says it’s not just our infrastructure that’s getting old. A significant number of the people who know how to fix our roads, electric grids and other critical infrastructure are very close to retiring.

The findings are from the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure (CSI) at The Evergreen State College in Washington State. Researchers focused on projects in the Pacific Northwest, but the problems CSI uncovered and the urgent need to address them are not unique to the Northwest.

Over the next decade, we’ll need to find replacements for one-quarter of all infrastructure workers in the U.S., according to the Brookings Institution. That’s a significant amount of institutional know-how that’s about to vanish. And CSI says it’s not just roads. Energy, water, and waste utilities have the same problem.

Economic impact doesn’t have to be bad
The aging infrastructure could provide a double blow to the economy -- or a tremendous opportunity to raise living standards.

It doesn’t take much of an infrastructure outage to lead to billions of dollars in economic losses. As infrastructure ages, it grows more unreliable and more susceptible to damage from storms, for example. And as the people who know how to fix it leave the workforce, repairs could take longer.

But bringing the next generation in now could provide a big economic boost, the report suggests. Infrastructure jobs provide valuable pathways out of poverty. Few jobs require advanced degrees, and the positions pay approximately one-third more than in other industries.

Getting the next workforce ready now
A program in Oregon is helping the next generation of infrastructure experts get up to speed. Three schools have teamed up to form the Oregon Power Engineering Education Project, a program that gives engineering students practical, real world experience that allows them to start contributing faster.

The schools started the program because the situation with the workforce behind Oregon’s energy utilities is much more dire than within the country’s infrastructure overall. The Bonneville Power Administration forecasts that 40% of its engineers and technical staff could retire within the next five years. Further, the utilities need more help to replace aging infrastructure, deliver more power to meet increasing demand and add more renewable energy into the power mix.

In addition to working together to secure internships for their students, the schools are working together to build a teaching lab and center, allowing them to better share best practices and inspire new thinking and innovation that will pay off in the future.

New way of thinking needed
The problem, however, isn’t just a staffing problem. To develop truly effective and sustainable solutions, cities also need to think in a much more proactive way about solving them.

The report suggests that true change needs to happen at the beginning of infrastructure projects, bringing agencies and smart technologies together to craft efficient, cohesive solutions, supplementing public resources with private-sector knowledge.

From the public’s perspective, infrastructure isn’t just one bridge or cluster of cellular towers, but too often it’s managed that way. In the case of Hurricane Sandy, the second-most costly hurricane in the history of the United States, many cities found themselves trying to rebuild a dozen or more separate communications networks.

Bringing various agencies and companies together to craft an integrated solution to the looming infrastructure crisis should lead to networks that are more reliable and efficient to maintain.

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