President Trump has started to lay out his principles for a $1 trillion makeover of America’s roads, bridges, waterways, electrical grid, and air traffic control system. His plan to modernize America’s infrastructure will require the administration and Congress to work together if it is to be enacted later this year. Whatever the contours of the bill, the plan will have to first overcome a significant problem that already plagues the U.S. economy: a severe lack of skilled workers necessary to turn job-creation goals into reality. As the White House works on its proposal, it should make skills training for infrastructure-related jobs a central part of the plan.
As the president and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin have rightly said, America’s low unemployment rate, currently at 4.3 percent, is a misleading snapshot. Research shows that 46 percent of Americans consider themselves underemployed. While the recent jobs report shows that 6.9 million people are out of work, millions more have reportedly dropped out of the workforce altogether. Yet, the problem isn’t a lack of jobs: a record-high 6 million jobs are going unfilled across America today in large part because employers say they cannot find workers with the skills they need to fill them.
It’s a problem that is especially pronounced in the construction and infrastructure industry, which requires a high number of skilled workers in positions like heavy equipment operators and industrial electricians — many of which require new digital competencies, from laser-guided screeds used by concrete contractors to remote-controlled robots necessary for demolition work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this month that there are 203,000 unfilled construction jobs in the U.S., while the National Association of Homebuilders has reported that the number of open construction positions jumped by 81 percent from 2014 to 2016. A 2016 Manpower Group report found that skilled trade jobs are the hardest jobs to fill in the U.S. for the seventh consecutive year, with 46 percent of U.S. employers surveyed struggling to fill such positions, a jump from 32 percent in 2015.
Building the skills of our workforce is a core investment in the infrastructure of a successful economy, and will give many more Americans the tools and resources to connect to meaningful employment while delivering the promise of an infrastructure bill. That’s why it came as a surprise that the president’s first full budget submitted to Congress proposes cuts across job training programs, including 40 percent cuts to the Department of Labor’s Workforce Innovation & Opportunity grants, $5 million from the Department’s apprenticeship grants, and nearly 20 percent from the Department of Education’s Perkins Grants for career and technical education.
At a moment when the president’s oft-stated job-creation plans — from renegotiating trade deals to re-shoring manufacturing jobs to restructuring the tax code — faces a longer road, skills training is the quickest path to putting Americans back to work. President Trump’s infrastructure initiative is an opportunity to seize this moment and transform our nation’s infrastructure and our nation’s workforce.
To do this, the investments for physical infrastructure ought to include investment for specific training for infrastructure-related jobs. Repairs to bridges and roads can be coupled with surface transportation workforce development. Upgrades to the electrical system can be paired with training for digitally-enabled utility jobs like network administrators and wind turbine service administrators, many of which barely existed a decade ago. Modernizing the nation’s air-traffic control system as the president proposed, or in any other manner, could be paired with advanced training on the digital satellite-based tracking systems necessary to replace the outdated land-based training that controllers still use to guide flights into the U.S. today.
This isn’t just the federal government’s responsibility; state governments, companies, educators, and local communities should work together to seize the opportunity to ensure our workforce is prepared to fill the newly created infrastructure jobs: starting with increased support for career and technical education, community colleges, and financial aid resources such as Pell Grants for job training programs like coding boot camps. We should use tax incentives to boost employee training and apprenticeship programs between employers and schools. And we should work to increase transparency in the outcomes of training programs, so Americans can make informed choices that lead to career success.
Across America, there is a growing coalition of organizations from all sectors working to provide 21st century skills for 21st century jobs. From TechHire, a group that connects job seekers to employers in the tech sector; to the Hope Street Group, which leverages private sector tools to improve social systems like job training programs, opportunity is a team effort.
At the Markle Foundation, we have seen the power of job training firsthand. For the past two years, we have worked in Colorado with local businesses, workers, educators, religious leaders, state legislators, and LinkedIn to enable those 21st century skills. Together, we are working to create a skills-based labor market that helps job seekers discover and train in the skills employers are looking for.
Now is the time for politicians of both parties to come together and make skills-based training a central principle in our efforts to put America back to work. A century ago, the public and private sectors came together to create universal access to public education through the 12th grade to build the skills necessary to transform the American workforce for success in the Industrial Age. Today, we can establish a similar legacy for the Digital Age.
Skills-based training is not all we need to do to fix the labor market; but it is a foundation upon which we can help every American find their place in the new economy.
Baird is CEO and president of the Markle Foundation, which through its Skillful initiative is working to help Americans prepare for today’s rapidly changing jobs in the digital economy. She wrote the preface to and is coauthor of the book, America’s Moment: Creating Opportunity in the Connected Age.