Strategies For Deploying Surface Transportation Funds For Workforce Development And Postsecondary Education

As states implement the IIJA, it will be critical that they ensure workers are equipped to participate successfully in the highway construction workforce and that education partners and the public workforce system understand employers’ talent needs.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) is delivering historic levels of funding for states to carry out an array of infrastructure projects, including crucial updates to roads, bridges and highways. Critically, the IIJA includes provisions that provide new flexibility for Governors and workforce development and education policymakers to use funds from four Federal Highway Administration programs for talent development activities. These programs – which originate in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) – are the National Highway Performance Program, the Surface Transportation Block Grant Program, the Highway Safety Improvement Program, and the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program. There is no limit on the amount of FAST Act funds states may allocate towards workforce development activities.

Eligible workforce development, training and education activities under the IIJA include:

  • tuition and direct educational expenses, excluding salaries, in connection with the education and training of employees of state and local transportation agencies;
  • employee professional development;
  • student internships;
  • pre-apprenticeships, apprenticeships and career opportunities for on-the-job training;
  • university, college, community college or vocational school support;
  • education activities, including outreach, to develop interest and promote participation in surface transportation careers; and
  • activities associated with workforce training and employment services, such as targeted outreach and partnerships with industry, economic development organizations, workforce development boards and labor organizations.

To help states allocate these funds for apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) extended its Policy Academy on Scaling Work-Based Learning and launched a new project effort with Connecticut, Idaho, North Carolina and Oregon. As part of this new initiative, these states received technical assistance and engaged in peer learning with the NGA Center from May 2022 to March 2023 as they developed strategies for investing FAST Act funds in registered apprenticeship.

Current State Approaches

Because the IIJA does not provide dedicated funding or a legislated role for the public workforce system, formula dollars from the four surface transportation programs in the FAST Act present one of the most reliable tools states can use to develop a transportation workforce strategy. The approaches taken by Oregon and Idaho throughout their work with the NGA Center involve concepts that are both replicable and evidence-based.

In Oregon, a legislative mandate sets the terms by which the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) allocates FAST Act funds for the state’s Highway Construction Workforce Development Program. Oregon delivers a range of support to workers pursuing a career in highway construction including childcare subsidies, transportation assistance, job readiness supplies and hardship assistance. A program evaluation published by Portland State University in December 2022 found that the delivery of these services had a positive impact on program completion and retention as well as Oregon’s overarching goal to diversify the highway construction workforce.

A proposal developed by the Idaho project team included several uses for FAST Act funds. These uses were centered around building up postsecondary trades programs in the transportation industry, the purchase of equipment for training purposes and increasing the amount of personnel certified in Heavy Equipment Operations and Commercial Drivers Licenses. The efforts to increase certifications focused on populations that are based in public colleges, women’s correctional facilities and those involved in youth- and pre-apprenticeship programs. In coordination with other state offices and agencies, Idaho also began developing a Human Capital Plan, which will serve as a tool to outline priorities such as stakeholder outreach, addressing challenges, incorporating apprenticeships and developing mechanisms to evaluate progress.

Additional Opportunities for Governors to Consider

The strategies carried out by Idaho and Oregon demonstrate best practices for leveraging FAST Act funds for workforce development, education and training as newly allowed by the IIJA, but they are not the only opportunities states may consider. Additional opportunities for Governors to consider include:

  • Establish a strategy for making strategic investments. Governors and education/workforce development policymakers may consider developing a strategic plan or conducting a needs assessment to better understand demand and outline the path forward. This can take shape in the form of a Human Capital Plan, which is encouraged but not required by the IIJA, and can guide transportation-related workforce investment decisions made by state departments of transportation and labor.
  • Leverage existing career pathways efforts. Governors may consider building on Career and Technical Education strategies including dual credit, work- and project-based learning and career exploration to create outreach tied to critical transportation sector occupations.
  • Provide data for program development and impact measurement. Governors can coordinate and share supply and demand data with regional postsecondary partners to drive the development and measurement of innovative programs and partnerships to meet emerging regional talent needs in the transportation sector.
  • Codify the terms by which FAST Act funds are spent on workforce development. Governors may consider taking executive action or supporting legislation that dictates the level of support that workforce development activities receive from FAST Act funds and which types of workforce development activities receive support.
  • Establish a formal, interagency coordinating body. Governors may consider appointing a group of policymakers and stakeholders to carry out or make recommendations for investing FAST Act funds in workforce and education initiatives.
  • Engage Employers. Governors may consider engaging employers in the policymaking process or surveying employer partners to ensure the business perspective has informed investments in workforce development.
  • Call on the State Workforce Development Board. Governors may consider calling on the business and government leaders appointed to the State Workforce Development Board to help determine funding allocations. These bodies, which are charged with setting the strategic vision for the state’s workforce development efforts and making policy recommendations to the Governor, may leverage its existing functions and processes to carry out strategic planning for investing FAST Act funds in workforce development.

As states implement the IIJA, it will be critical that they ensure workers are equipped to participate successfully in the highway construction workforce and that education partners and the public workforce system understand employers’ talent needs. States that are considering leveraging FAST Act funds to develop their highway construction workforce may look to the strategies carried out in Idaho and Oregon as examples. The NGA Center will continue to work with Governors and workforce development and education policymakers to develop strategies which best utilize IIJA funding, as well as identify other innovative approaches states may consider as they move forward.

This article was developed by Charlie Schonberger and Jack Porter, NGA Center for Best Practices. For more information on Governors’ workforce development efforts please contact