Rebuilding Our Nation’s Infrastructure Workforce Through Work-Based Learning

It’s National Infrastructure Week! This is an opportunity to not only take stock of the state of infrastructure in our country today, but more importantly, it’s an opportunity to take the necessary steps to train the workforce that will build our future.

Our nation’s infrastructure is in dire need of an upgrade. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives our infrastructure a D+ grade based on the system’s capacity – or lack thereof – condition, funding, future need, operation and maintenance, public safety, resilience and innovation. We have more than 56,000 bridges across the country that are structurally deficient. ASCE estimates that there are 188 million trips across these structurally deficient bridges each day.

The good news is that there is growing bipartisan support for an infrastructure package. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer walked out of a recent White House meeting with an apparent agreement with President Trump to do something “big and bold” on infrastructure – to the tune of $2 trillion.

Investing in infrastructure at this scale would not only strengthen our economic competitiveness and enhance public safety, but it would also create millions of new jobs for those who are looking for work, underemployed or seeking higher wages.

Taking full advantage of this potential job creation, however, requires investing in our human capital to create a diverse pipeline of workers that are trained with the skills necessary to access and succeed in these infrastructure jobs.

Businesses in infrastructure are already facing intense labor shortages due to impending retirements, lack of diversity in the workforce and overall skill shortages. According to a report by the Departments of Education and Labor, there are 68 percent more projected job openings in infrastructure over the next five years than there are students training for these jobs.

The report points out that we need to increase our infrastructure workforce by 4.6 million workers by 2022 just to keep pace with current and projected hiring needs – a number that would only get larger given the millions of new jobs that a potential $2 trillion new infrastructure investment would create.

Work-based learning and apprenticeship programs with robust support services – like pre-employment training to develop entry-level skills, childcare and transportation to ensure success during the first few months of employment – are a “win-win” solution to this problem.

For infrastructure companies in desperate need of new workers, these programs immediately place motivated hires on site. For youth and adults in need of skills training, work-based learning offers an on-ramp to a career pathway that includes a paying job from the start, and structured on-the-job learning enables workers to efficiently develop the skills needed to be productive.

Many businesses, particularly small and mid-sized business, lack the resources to develop and implement these training strategies internally. Many of them aren’t familiar with external stakeholders, such as community colleges, which provide classroom training that complements on-the-job learning or the community-based organizations who can offer retention supports.

That’s why we need to invest in local partnerships – between businesses, human services providers and workforce and education systems – to expand work-based learning programs so that workers have the skills to fill these new infrastructure jobs.

Partnerships like this exist in infrastructure industries across the country. Take Kentucky, for example, where there’s a partnership between Jacobs, the Louisville Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD), and KentuckianaWorks, the local workforce development board. Through their partnership, KentuckianaWorks connects workers to training opportunities to help fill current and future openings with Jacobs and MSD.

In Iowa, the United Way of Central Iowa runs a workforce partnership that includes several employers in transportation, distribution and logistics, community partners and the local community college. This partnership not only provides training for incarcerated men and women at two correctional facilities in the area, but it also offers support in the form of interview clothing, bus passes and job search advice to help workers succeed in employment after reentry.

What’s needed now is sustainable federal investment to replicate the innovation happening on a small scale. And there’s a bipartisan piece of legislation that helps address that: The BUILDS Act, introduced by Senators Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio).

This bill would provide grants to help train workers, and support services, like childcare, pre-employment training, transportation and career counseling, to help workers succeed in work-based learning programs.

Both voters and business leaders agree with the goals of this legislation. Sixty-four percent of small and mid-sized business owners say increased government funding for support services to help people finish skills training programs will help their business. Eighty-one percent of likely 2020 voters also agree that we should increase government funding for support services to help people complete skills training programs.

Investing in our nation’s infrastructure is critical. But so is investing in the workers to fill those infrastructure jobs. Lawmakers should work together to do both.

Katie Spiker is a senior federal policy analyst at National Skills Coalition.

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