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Building up America: Jobs in Infrastructure

Looking for a job that can't be outsourced and that could provide a good income for years to come? Think infrastructure. In the 21st century, infrastructure isn't just roads, bridges, railroads, and water or sewer plants -- it's high-tech electrical grids, high-speed Internet cable and wireless networks.

Several factors have come together to make now a great time to get into infrastructure jobs. One is demographic -- a generation of baby boomers who've spent their careers maintaining water, sewer, and power plants are hitting retirement age. Another issue is America's longtime habit of deferring maintenance on its roads, bridges, and other infrastructure systems, says executive recruiter Stephen Hinton of Hinton Human Capital in Atlanta.

This has recently come home to roost with prominent infrastructure failures such as the 2007 Mississippi River bridge collapse in Minneapolis. With infrastructure crumbling, many cities are launching massive infrastructure-repair programs, Hinton says, sometimes under federal-government order.

"The U.S. has 50 to 60 years' worth of work that needs to be done just to bring things up to date," he says.

Two more reasons why infrastructure is a hot job niche: The growth of high-tech communication and the federal stimulus bill signed in early 2009. Stimulus funds should help spur everything from new light-rail development to more efficient electrical transmission to the spread of high-speed Internet.

A raft of infrastructure jobs that pay in the low- to mid-$40,000 salary range are well-known -- plumber, electrician, concrete mason, welder, HVAC technician. These so-called "skilled manual trades" topped Manpower's list of tough jobs to fill in both 2008 and 2009, and will continue to be in demand for years to come, says Joel Leonard, a self-proclaimed "maintenance evangelist" in North Carolina who helps infrastructure companies find skilled workers.

Here are a range of other infrastructure-related jobs that have a promising future.

Water treatment operator
It's the definition of unglamorous, but someone has to keep cities' water clean and flowing, 24 hours a day. Hinton says operators take a four-level certification course, but can get started with just a few months of training. Most jobs are with municipalities, but Hinton says jobs at private corporations and independently operated utilities pay better. $41,100 per year.

Computer-aided designer
Before anything can be built, the engineering plans have to be created and then drawn using computer software. Each plan revision brings more work, notes Hinton. In some cases, a short community college course can get you started. $51,300 per year.

Land surveyor
Also known as a geomatic technician, surveyors are the folks you see standing with a tripod taking measurements at proposed development sites. Surveyors create digital maps engineers and designers use to plan building projects. Hinton says it's an entry-level job that pays better than most.

"Lots of folks get into it straight out of high school, or while they're in college," he says. $55,000 per year.

Construction project manager
Every construction project the stimulus bill funds will need someone overseeing it to make sure it's staying on budget and going according to plan. Hinton says workers with past work experience in some aspect of construction can often find opportunities to move up without additional training. $69,500 per year.

Field engineer, telecommunications
In telecom, rather than a four-year degree, engineers may do better breaking in with certification training from a major provider such as Cisco, says executive recruiter Paul Lipman of Lucas Group in Atlanta. Field engineers work on installations of broadband, telephone, and wireless networks. $75,500 per year.

Security consultant
As companies and governments expand their use of the Internet, security engineers make sure their data is safe. An engineering degree is nice to have, Lipman says, but not all employers require it.

Lipman says, "Information security is going to be hot, and pays well." $85,200 per year.

Reliability engineer
"Reliability" is the new industry term for "maintenance," says Leonard. Forward-thinking companies and municipalities are hiring engineers to troubleshoot their infrastructure and prevent problems -- for example, using infrared cameras to spot heat loss in buildings. Like most engineering jobs, this one requires a college degree. $86,800 per year.

by Carol Tice,

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