People-Centered Infrastructure Fosters Community Benefits
Lessons and best practices in water equity from Louisville and Jefferson County Metropolitan Sewer District
In this article, Jacobs Social Value/Equity Practice Leader Victoria Johnson shares lessons and best practices in water equity from one of Jacobs’ clients, Louisville and Jefferson County Metropolitan Sewer District.
Water infrastructure in the United States is in desperate need of rehabilitation and repair, with the greatest need in our most vulnerable communities. Water utilities throughout the country are responding to this need by proactively adopting water equity, and social and environmental justice initiatives that prioritize community benefits through capital investments in water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure.
As the U.S. economy strives to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, the water sector is in a unique position to serve as an economic engine to jump-start the economy and create jobs.
Low-income communities and people of color have historically been affected by a legacy of redlining in the U.S., and bear a larger burden of water-related factors such as water quality, storms and flood events, as well as barriers to participating in local infrastructure workforce and contracting opportunities. According to the Brookings Institution’s Renewing the Water Workforce, water workers tend to be older, and lack gender and racial diversity in certain occupations. In 2016, nearly 85% of water workers were male and two-thirds were white, pointing to a need for younger, more diverse talent.
With a heightened awareness of social justice and racial equity nationwide, the Biden Administration’s inclusive policies via the Build Back Better Plan, the American Jobs Plan and the Racial Equity Plan illustrate legislation that promotes people-centered infrastructure. According to the National Skills Coalition & Business Leaders United for Workforce Partnerships, infrastructure should be people-centered: built for the people, by the people. Through infrastructure, we transform the communities we live and work in through community wealth building, environmental justice, social and racial equity, sustainability and resilience.
Utilities nationwide are going beyond their traditional mandate of providing clean water to rate payers, and serving as anchor institutions to boost the economy, create jobs and put Americans back to work. With $111 billion dollars allocated to the water sector from the American Jobs Plan, coupled with a proposed $100 billion in workforce development, this creates a great opportunity for utilities to invest in communities through job training, affordability programs, education and creating opportunities for retail and hospitality workers, as well as for second-chance citizens to return to the workforce.
Louisville and Jefferson County Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) is a national water equity leader, well known for implementing community benefits as a value-add to its strategic priorities since 2015. Through its $4.3 billion Critical Repair & Reinvestment Plan, Louisville MSD is leveraging large-scale projects to create jobs and elevate a new generation of water professionals from disinvested and at-risk communities in Louisville.Serving a metropolitan service area of approximately 750,000 composed of both affluent and vulnerable communities, Louisville MSD is intentional about investing in racially diverse ratepayers, as well as minority- and women-owned businesses to jump-start wealth creation and drive equitable distribution of funding through strategic partnerships with multi-disciplinary stakeholders in the public, private and non-profit sectors.
Community Benefits Program
Louisville MSD commissioned a Disparity Study in 2018 to assess how much business the agency contracted with small, women- and minority-owned businesses (M/WBEs). The results found disparities among African Americans, Asian Indians and Caucasian women, and recommended the agency develop a new Community Benefits Program to invest in underserved groups. Through this program, Louisville MSD is actively engaging ratepayers, vendors and M/WBEs to participate in the agency’s capital investment in Louisville’s infrastructure. This program gives local residents access to education, employment and training opportunities in the local community through its large-scale engineering projects.
Part of the agency’s procurement policies when bidding on large dollar construction, construction-related, and professional service contracts, incentivize vendors to provide community benefits through volunteer hours, in-kind services, or financial contributions to local non-profits, community-based organizations and schools. To date, the program has received more than $250,000 in commitments towards community organizations and schools in Louisville and Jefferson County, and a myriad of private sector firms are participating with active or fulfilled commitments.
While there are many opportunities to hire local workers for capital projects at Louisville MSD, local contractors have expressed a skills-void in the workforce. To help close that gap, Louisville MSD developed a Web-based jobs portal to connect contractors working on MSD projects with local job seekers.
“The goal of MSDJobLink is to utilize local labor in Louisville and surrounding counties to work on projects resulting from our $4.3 billion Critical Repair & Reinvestment Plan,” said Louisville MSD Executive Director Tony Parrott. “This will provide much needed upgrades to our aging wastewater infrastructure system, which in turn helps grow the local economy. This 20-year program will create and sustain an estimated 3,000 local construction jobs annually, including carpenters, heavy equipment operators and ironworkers.”
Local Labor Policy
Water utilities are ripe for employment and growing the economy. In 2015, Louisville MSD adopted a local labor preference policy to ensure employment opportunities for residents in Louisville and Jefferson County. In 2020, 1,200 jobs were created from large projects, including 474 in the agency’s service area and 56 skill craft areas, including bricklayers, carpenters, electricians, operators and pipefitters.
Equity in Contracting Taskforce
To expand its commitment to supplier diversity, Louisville MSD joined Louisville Metro Government’s Equity in Contracting Taskforce to encourage the city’s largest private and public infrastructure investors to increase the amount of infrastructure dollars being invested in Black-owned and diverse businesses. Convened by City of Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, the taskforce is charged with addressing tremendous gaps that exist among minority-owned businesses, and ensuring that Louisville’s anticipated expenditure of approximately $5 billion in public and private capital infrastructure investments over the next five years is fairly and equitably distributed among Black-owned and diverse businesses.
Louisville MSD is committed to addressing disparities in its service area by increasing access and opportunities to underserved groups. The supplier diversity program has grown considerably over the last 35 years, with new goals for under-utilized minorities and women-owned businesses (M/WBEs). In 2019, the agency introduced new goals targeting under-represented groups as determined by the 2018 Disparity Study; 18% for African American-owned businesses, 2% for Asian-Indian-owned businesses, and 15% for Caucasian Women-owned businesses.
Louisville Water Equity Taskforce & Roadmap
With a focus on workforce development, Louisville MSD published An Equitable Water Future: Louisville, a roadmap to achieve water equity. This action plan identifies specific actions necessary to achieve equity through intentional action in hiring practices, procurement, and inclusive policies and programs.
Convened by the U.S. Water Alliance, the report conducts an in-depth assessment of the equity landscape in Louisville and illustrates how utilities can achieve equity through technical and trade skills building, union partnerships, youth STEM education, procurement incentives, supplier diversity and local labor hiring policies. For each of these areas, the report outlines actions local organizations in Louisville can take to produce more inclusive and equitable outcomes. Click here to review the roadmap.
Victoria Johnson is Jacobs’ Social Value/Equity Practice Leader advising our clients on large infrastructure programs throughout the U.S. She is a proven expert delivering innovative solutions to address the urgency of infrastructure challenges in overburdened communities through her work on Capital Improvement Programs in excess of $4 billion+ and redevelopment programs more than $20 billion. In recognition of her leadership on a variety of equity-focused initiatives, Victoria was recently appointed to serve on a national Industry Recovery Panel to advise the Biden Administration and 117th Congress on federal recovery policies in coming months, including the Build Back Better Plan.